Manitoba Liberal leader sets sight on party growth in 2017

Interim Liberal leader Judy Klassen says she'll continue to champion northern and Indigenous issues. She says Premier Brian Pallister has to start listening to public sector unions.

Interim Liberal leader Judy Klassen speaks about 2016 in politics and the year to come

Liberal Jon Gerrard introduces Judy Klassen as interim leader in October. (CBC News )

Judy Klassen describes her first year in politics like this: "Oh my word!"

It comes with a laugh that Klassen often sprinkles into her conversations.

A surprise win in her constituency of Kewatinook in the April election was followed by her Liberal party announcing she would be interim leader until a convention in 2017.

The political rookie describes 2016 as an "amazing journey, unreal and totally not planned." 

Klassen says one of the surprises in her abrupt exposure to politics is coping with people who have a negative view of politicians and figuring out a way to overcome those feelings.

"Trying to break through that barrier and redefine it. We are having more women come into politics. That's always a good thing. When you get women out of their traditional roles and into roles [where] there is definitely going to be a change," Klassen said.

Klassen thinks the Liberals, despite having just three members (River Heights MLA Jon Gerrard and Burrows MLA Cindy Lamoureux) in the Legislature, also have a distinct role to play.

"To be that reasonable voice. We listen to both sides of the story before jumping on either bandwagon. We have to make sure we are representing Manitobans," Klassen said.

Manitoba must champion Indigenous rights: Klassen 

Klassen says the key issue for her in the first eight months since the election has been to give Indigenous Manitobans and northerners a say in provincial politics.

Judy Klassen's impassioned speeches about struggles on First Nations have brought attention and respect, but few changes so far. (CBC News )

The plea to her fellow legislators to increase their attention on Indigenous people may not have resulted in new laws or programs, but Klassen's quiet, heartfelt descriptions about northern communities have resulted in pin-drop silences in the house, followed by bursts of applause.

The Liberal party also introduced a detailed plan to improve brain health in Manitoba. The comprehensive document got a "we'll take a close look at it," from the Pallister government, which is now focused on the economy and a tug-of-war with Ottawa on health care funding.

"We didn't put this report together so it could sit on some shelf. They are proven models in there and that's what we need to start working on." Klassen said.

Liberal party sees opportunity in Point Douglas

But it is a long and uphill battle for the Liberals to move from the relative success of taking three seats in the last election to genuine power in Manitoba politics. The party has little money and limited staff.

Klassen will embark on a tour to learn more about the province and the constituencies the Liberals think they might have success in running a candidate. The party is also eyeing the seat recently left empty by the departure of NDP MLA Kevin Chief. 

Klassen thinks Point Douglas might be a real opportunity for the Liberals, and they are getting ready.

"We've got to hit the ground running. We are not going to sit around waiting for Pallister to announce any kind of dates. We're going to make sure we are ready for when he does," she said..

Klassen urges Premier to speak to unions

Premier Brian Pallister has chosen on a number of occasions to bypass union leaders and telegraph his plans through the media. Klassen says it's not the way the Liberals would approach negotiations.

"I don't really appreciate it because these are our Manitobans. There has been several times when they have come— several groups, for rallies or protests. You have to go and talk to to them and let them know you are listening...because these are the people that put you into these positions," Klassen said.

Klassen believes federal Liberal counterparts have offered real increases for health care transfers. (CBC News )

The interim Liberal leader is also wary of the PC government's constant demands on Ottawa to increase health care transfers over approximately three per cent per year. Klassen says it is represents a real increase and she doesn't trust some of the rhetoric being fired by the provinces at the federal Liberals.

"We talked to [federal Health Minister Jane] Philpott and despite the way it's being portrayed there is an actual increase of three per cent....I'd rather believe what she is saying than what's being portrayed," Klassen said.

The rookie politician says no matter where the party leadership takes her, she will always defer to the major issues happening where she grew up.

"The reasons I ran were getting kids safe. Housing for First Nations. Proper water, for one. The issues I ran on, that's what Kewatinook needs, that's what Kewatinook wants. So I am going to push for those,"  Klassen said.

If the impression forms that Judy Klassen is too nice for politics or the soul-scarring issues in her constituency will discourage her, she urges everyone to think again.

"I'm prepared for anything. I've been through everything," she says. "I'm successful today by the standards put in place by western society. With that success, I am also successful by Indigenous standards. I am the mother. I have been the stay-at-home-mom. I've raised three successful kids so far and three at home," Klassen said.


Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.