Emails to Manitoba premier provide a snapshot of public feedback on pandemic rules

WINNIPEG — Dictator. Criminal. Greedy.

Those are some of the descriptors fired in writing at former Manitoba premier Brian Pallister by members of the general public in May 2020 as the government was facing the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The correspondence to the premier's office over a two-day period — May 11 and 12 of that year — was obtained by The Canadian Press under a freedom-of-information request that took more than a year to fulfil. It provides a small snapshot of the feedback the government faced as it maintained limits on business openings and public gatherings.

"Your office is bordering on criminal. You have the whole province shut down for what, 30 cases?" reads one email from a person who wanted public health orders lifted. The names of all senders were withheld under privacy provisions.

"You are giving the green light to spread this virus and I resent that," reads an email from a person who opposed a relaxation of some restrictions earlier in the month. "You are not a leader. You are a very greedy politician."

Manitoba was just starting to see the effects of the novel coronavirus at the time. There had been 289 cases and seven deaths linked to COVID-19. The government initially forced many non-essential businesses to close. Schools, dentist offices, museums and other facilities were also shuttered.

In early May, the government loosened some of the restrictions. Dentists and some other non-urgent health providers were allowed to reopen. Retail stores and restaurant patios were allowed to open at half capacity, but many facilities had to stay closed and a 10-person limit on public gatherings remained in place.

The correspondence received by the premier's office over the two days was divided — 24 called for a further easing or outright lifting of restrictions while five called for a continuation or tightening of the rules.

"I feel you can declare that the crisis in Manitoba is over and we can fully open up," one emailer wrote.

"Is anyone asking how this virus is being weaponized by socialist-leaning politicians?" wrote another.

One person called for the immediate reopening of casinos. Another asked the premier to ease restrictions on visiting long-term care homes.

As the pandemic continued, intensive care units became overrun. At one point last year, dozens of patients were shipped to other provinces to free up beds. A 31-year-old woman, Krystal Mousseau, died after an attempted airlift from a hospital in Brandon, Man. to Ottawa.

Pallister retired in 2021 and was succeeded by Heather Stefanson.

The most recent data shows Manitoba has now seen more than 152,000 cases and over 2,200 deaths. Manitoba has recorded the second-highest per-capita death rate linked to COVID-19, data compiled by the federal government indicates.

Demand for intensive care beds, including for non-COVID patients, remains above pre-pandemic normal capacity. Doctors have warned in recent weeks that Manitoba hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed by the rising spread of three respiratory viruses — COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

The premier's correspondence in May 2020 wasn't entirely negative.

Some emails called for specific measures such as more protective equipment for health care workers, more financial support for businesses and increases to social assistance cheques.

One person thanked Pallister for the "proactive posture" he adopted in addressing the pandemic.

Another wrote to say the premier was doing "a great job".

"Every time I see you on the news updates, I am impressed with your caring, however no-nonsense approach."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2022.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press