PC leadership candidate Stefanson vows to earn trust after being health minister during difficult 3rd wave

Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Heather Stefanson, who could become the next premier in two months, said she intends to earn the trust of Manitobans after serving as health minister during the difficult third wave of the pandemic.

Tuxedo MLA pledges to keep vaccination requirements if she becomes premier; carbon tax, PST cut up in the air

Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Heather Stefanson said her government based its pandemic decisions on advice from public health. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Heather Stefanson, who could become the next premier in two months, said she intends to earn the trust of Manitobans after serving as health minister during the difficult third wave of the pandemic.

The 21-year Tuxedo MLA was responsible for the province's public health response this spring, when the number of severe COVID-19 cases in the province overwhelmed Manitoba hospitals mere weeks after health-care professionals warned pandemic restrictions were not sufficient to stave off the third wave.

In the middle of May, Stefanson insisted ICU capacity could still be expanded days before the province began transferring the first of 57 critically ill COVID patients to intensive care wards in other provinces.

Looking back, she said she was operating with the best information she had.

"You know what? Coulda, shoulda, woulda. This is what what we can think of after the fact, but when you're thrown in the middle of this, there is no playbook for this, and you just make your decisions based on the advice that you get from the professionals," Stefanson said Wednesday during a wide-ranging interview about her record in government and what she would do as premier if she is selected as Brian Pallister's successor on Oct. 30.

"I don't know what I don't know. So all I know is the information that is being given and I think, frankly, we're not always all equipped with all the information that we could be [getting]," Stefanson said.

"Things were happening so quickly ... Day to day, hour by hour, decisions need to be made very quickly. What's the information that you have at the time? You don't necessarily have it all around you."

Stefanson, who stepped down as health minister in August, is among three candidates who have declared their intention to compete in the PC leadership race. Former Conservative MP Shelly Glover and McPhillips MLA Shannon Martin have also said they intend to run. 

Kinew tweets

On the first day of her leadership campaign, Stefanson had already secured the support of more than two-thirds of the PC caucus. She also inspired NDP Leader Wab Kinew to highlight her performance as health minister during the pandemic's third wave.

"The clearest sign to date the PCs won't change after Mr. Pallister — his health minister, who oversaw dozens of ICU patients flown out of our province because of PC cuts, wants to replace him," Kinew tweeted on Aug. 18.

Should Stefanson become premier, Kinew is expected to continue drawing attention to her time as health minister. Stefanson said she knows what she has to do for the remaining two years before the next election.

"Trust comes by way of getting out and speaking with Manitobans and listening to Manitobans — and that will be my focus. I can't control what Wab Kinew does or says, but I can control what I do," she said.

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The Tuxedo MLA also offered some indication of what policies she would pursue as premier, at least in a very broad terms.

She promised action on "truth and reconciliation, in a real, very real way," but did not state what that would mean in specific terms for Manitoba's Indigenous community.

She pledged to increase intensive care capacity in Manitoba hospitals, and acknowledged salaries for nurses and other health-care professionals must be more competitive with those in other provinces. 

Education reform

She also pledged some form of education reform, even though her government is no longer moving forward with Bill 64 and the threat of dissolving elected school boards.

"That was never part of the initial K-to-12 review," she said. "It sort of came out of nowhere and became this lightning rod."

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More specifically, Stefanson promised to continue to require vaccinations or frequent COVID-19 testing of provincial employees who work with vulnerable people — and vaccination cards for patrons of restaurants, bars, theatres and casinos.

"We'll continue to to move forward with it the way it is," she said of the existing vaccination regime.

Stefanson would not, however, commit to shaving another point off the provincial sales tax or bringing in a made-in-Manitoba carbon tax to replace the one imposed by Ottawa.

"I'm not a fan of taxes at all, but I also don't stick my head in the sand. I recognize that climate change is a challenge," she said. "I think we've seen it this summer and we've had serious situations with the drought situation in our rural communities that has had devastating impacts on farmers."

Stefanson said one pledge she hinted at as health minister in January was quietly fulfilled: Reproductive health has been returned to the health portfolio and is a responsibility of the new provincial health minister, Audrey Gordon.

 "It is actually back in the health portfolio now. It just wasn't announced," she said.

Addressing fine

She also addressed a blemish on her professional record that has been making the rounds on social media once more: A $3,000 fine she received in 2002 from the Investment Dealers Association for a pair of trades she made while suspended in 1999.

Stefanson said she had failed to complete some continuing education while she was caring for her mother, who had ovarian cancer at the time.

"It's basically the equivalent of getting a ticket at an expired meter," Stefanson said. "I chose to do that because it was more important to help look after my mom."

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Stefanson said she has no other skeletons in her closet and is prepared for the scrutiny of a leadership campaign.

"I've spent the last almost 21 years of my life being elected and giving back to the community. I had a couple of opportunities to potentially do this leadership role before, but I chose not to because my kids were just too young. My husband was traveling. It just wasn't the right time," she said.

"Now, they've said, mom, this is your time. And they're very excited to get out on the campaign trail."


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.