Eileen Clarke returns to Manitoba cabinet, new seniors minister added in shuffle
Premier Heather Stefanson announces new cabinet with 17 ministers, increase of 1
The Manitoba government's new cabinet has three new faces, as well as that of a popular minister who had previously resigned under discord with then-premier Brian Pallister.
Premier Heather Stefanson announced a shuffle Tuesday that removed Ralph Eichler, who was agriculture minister, and Cathy Cox, who was the minister for sport, culture and status of women, from the Progressive Conservative government's cabinet.
In their place are three new faces: Turtle Mountain MLA Doyle Piwniuk as infrastructure minister, Lagimodière MLA Andrew Smith — who takes over sport, culture and heritage, and as minister responsible for Travel Manitoba and the Manitoba Centennial Centre Corporation — and Assiniboia MLA Scott Johnston, taking on the newly minted department of seniors and long-term care.
Johnston's department is tasked with implementing all recommendations of the Stevenson review into the deadly 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at Maples personal care home in Winnipeg, Stefanson said.
Eileen Clarke is back in cabinet as minister of municipal relations, a portfolio that returns her to a somewhat familiar spot.
She had been serving as minister of Indigenous and northern relations when she resigned from cabinet in July 2021, after Pallister made comments that unleashed a firestorm of criticism for downplaying the harms of colonialism in Canada.
"Minister Clarke is one of the most capable individuals that I've met in my life," Stefanson said, adding her appointment sends a message to municipalities about their importance moving forward.
Clarke said she and Stefanson always worked well together in their previous roles in the Pallister cabinet so it was "really a great day" to be invited back into the inner circle.
When she left cabinet before, Clarke recalled, she didn't feel her voice and those of others were being heard but "that changed 100 per cent the day this premier took office."
Clarke's cabinet appointment was well received by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak
"It is positive to know Eileen Clarke has been appointed as the minister of municipal affairs. MKO had a productive relationship with Minister Clarke in her past role as minister of Indigenous and Northern relations," Grand Chief Garrison Settee said in an emailed statement.
"As we have ongoing concerns with the provision of health services in the municipality of Leaf Rapids, my office will be reaching out to her to seek assistance on this matter."
Alan Lagimodiere took Clarke's place under the newly named ministry of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations, a role he retains in the new cabinet.
The rest of the cabinet is made up of returning ministers but with some tweaks. Gone are the departments devoted to Crown services as well as legislative and public affairs.
Stefanson said many of those responsibilities have now been divvied out among the ministers. She also said a number of portfolios have been reframed to address the ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19, a plan for economic growth and recovery, and a better focus on the priorities of all Manitobans.
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The premier has also named a minister of labour — a position that has not existed in the Manitoba government since the Progressive Conservatives took power in 2016.
Reg Helwer was named as the new minister of labour, consumer protection and government services, as well as minister responsible for the Public Utilities Board and minister responsible for the civil service.
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck called the appointment "long past due."
"The absence of a labour minister had made us an outlier in Canada for nearly six years. We are glad to finally have someone to work with on important issues that matter to working people in our province," he said in a statement.
But the appointment is a "bare minimum," Rebeck said, citing "a desperate need" for government to fix chronic staffing shortages in health care and other areas of the public sector.
Employees also need permanent paid sick days so they aren't forced to choose between going to work sick or staying home to protect public health, he said, also calling for an increase to the province's "embarrassing minimum wage," which will drop to the second-lowest in the country this spring.
"What this government does to support working people over the next few months will matter most," Rebeck said.
Audrey Gordon will continue as health minister. Her portfolio will be reframed to include a mandate to strengthen resources to help manage COVID-19, while working with the surgical and diagnostic task force to clear an ongoing backlog in procedures.
"We will continue to work with our public health leaders to ensure Manitoba has the appropriate response to COVID-19 and we will employ targeted measures to protect Manitobans and avoid further economic lockdowns," said Stefanson.
Gordon's responsibilities for mental health and community wellness will be handed to Sarah Guillemard, who was previously minister of conservation and climate.
She is tasked with working with community organizations to address and treat the addictions and mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.
The shuffle comes as Stefanson and her government continue to score low in opinion polls and face heavy criticism over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manitoba has seen a surge in the number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19, and the number of people in intensive care is well above pre-pandemic normal capacity.
Federal statistics also show that as of Tuesday, Manitoba had the second-highest per-capita death rate from COVID-19 among all provinces.
"These are tough times for Manitobans. None of us have ever been through anything like this and we never ever imagined it would last this long," Stefanson said at Tuesday afternoon's swearing-in ceremony.
Asked about the decision to create three portfolios with a focus on health care — mental health and community wellness, health, and seniors and long-term care — Stefanson said bluntly "it's because we need them."
"We've seen, obviously, through the pandemic that there is a need for more emphasis on health care," she said.
Stefanson pointed out there was a ministry of mental health, wellness and recovery, and another for health and seniors care. Both fell under the Gordon as health minister. Now they are spread out among three cabinet ministers to get more attention.
"We've seen, obviously, through the pandemic that there is a need for more emphasis on health care," Stefanson said, adding there needed to be a greater focus on seniors.
Asked what makes him suited for his role, Johnston said "first and foremost, I am a senior."
"I say that in a little bit of jest but it's true that in my particular time in my life, I'm going to be experiencing the things that many seniors are experiencing right now," he said. "So I can honestly say that I'll have firsthand knowledge of not only the challenges in later years but the challenges right now."
Cliff Cullen moves out of the education minister portfolio to become and minister of economic development, investment and trade. He is also the new deputy premier.
Kelvin Goertzen changes from minister of legislative and public affairs to minister of justice and attorney general, and minister responsible for Manitoba Public Insurance. He is also the government house leader.
Cameron Friesen is no longer minister of justice and attorney general but now minister of finance — a position he previously held from May 2016 until August 2018 — and minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro.
Scott Fielding, who was minister of finance, takes on the Natural Resources and Northern Development portfolio. He will also serve as minister responsible for the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corporation.
Former Crown Services minister Jeff Wharton takes over the conservation and climate portfolio, which has been renamed as Ministry of Environment, Climate and Parks. He is also the minister responsible for Efficiency Manitoba, the newest Crown corporation, which is dedicated to promoting energy efficiency.
Wayne Ewasko is the new education minister, moving from the advanced education, skills and immigration portfolio.
Derek Johnson, formerly minister of municipal relations, was named minister of agriculture.
Jon Reyes will act as minister of advanced education, skills and immigration. He was formerly the minister of economic development and jobs.
Rochelle Squires will assume the roles of minister responsible for the status of women and minister responsible for accessibility, while continuing as minister of families and minister responsible for francophone affairs.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont dismissed the cabinet shuffle as nothing more than "putting a new gloss of paint on an old house."
He says this latest cabinet shuffle will not make a difference.
"This is the third cabinet shuffle we've had in a full blown crisis and there haven't really been any improvements in performance," Lamont said.
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew criticized the appointment of three ministers to varying health portfolios.
"You know what I was thinking about today was watching the announcement as the PCs are trying to sell you on this three health ministers for the price of one thing, but you can't actually get health care in Manitoba right now," Kinew said.
"If you're waiting for a surgery, if you're somebody who needs a hip or knee replacement, there is no universal public access to health care in Manitoba, and that's what this government should be focused on right now."
Stefanson teased an announcement on surgical and diagnostic backlogs, saying Manitobans will hear from the task force later this week.
With files from Nathan Liewicki