On Oct. 31, Heather Stefanson defeated Shelly Glover to become leader of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party of Manitoba, succeeding Brian Pallister and interim leader Kelvin Goertzen. A few days later, she was sworn in as Manitoba’s 24th premier and became the first woman to lead the province.
Evan Robinson, vice-president of the University of Winnipeg Campus Conservatives, endorsed Stefanson during the leadership race and says her victory is a “big deal.”
“She’s the first woman (premier) in the first province that allowed women to vote, and she’ll be the only female premier currently,” he says.
Stefanson, MLA for Tuxedo since 2000, has been the deputy premier since 2016 and has held many other high-profile ministerial positions. Most recently, she served as Minister of Health and Seniors Care from January to August 2021. During this period, Manitoba’s disastrous third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the province had the highest per-capita infection rate across the United States and Canada, occurred.
During the leadership race, Stefanson was endorsed by many PC caucus members and local business leaders. Robinson says this played a role in their endorsement and might indicate that she is a more collaborative leader than her predecessor.
“I think she’s really willing to listen to people ... and take opinions from all the different members of the Progressive Conservative Party, as well as Manitobans,” he says.
Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party and MLA for St. Boniface, is skeptical that Stefanson’s approach to governance will differ from Pallister’s.
“A lot of trust has been turned up, and it’s hard for people to regain that trust,” he says. “This is a government that tried to ram through 19 blank bills and have made cuts that have been really damaging.”
Stefanson is facing some major challenges in her first weeks as premier. The University of Manitoba Faculty Association is on strike, and the fourth wave of COVID-19 is well underway. Perhaps her biggest challenge, however, comes from within her own party.
Glover, a former federal cabinet minister, is claiming she is the victor of the leadership race, alleging irregularities in the voting process. This is being taken to court, but, in the meantime, is creating a major distraction for Stefanson’s first few weeks in office. For instance, the Globe and Mail published a cheeky opinion piece entitled “Is Heather Stefanson the real premier of Manitoba?”
Robinson acknowledges a divide in the party, particularly when it comes to the issue of vaccine mandates. However, he thinks Stefanson, who only won by 363 votes, is the right person to unite the Progressive Conservatives.
“When the election comes up in the next few years, I don’t think the Conservatives will have any problem uniting around a common message, especially because of the unpopularity of Wab Kinew within the (PC) party,” Robinson says.
A Probe Research poll from September 2021 found that the NDP had 42 per cent of support, the PCs had 35 per cent, the Liberals had 12 per cent, the Greens had 3 per cent, and 13 per cent of respondents were undecided.
Published in Volume 76, Number 09 of The Uniter (November 12, 2021)