WINNIPEG — Manitoba Opposition New Democrats are promising to create a Crown corporation to improve internet and cellular service in northern and rural areas, if they win the next election in 2023.
The idea was one more than 20 resolutions passed at the party's annual convention Saturday, in addition to calls for a higher minimum wage, higher staffing levels in health care, and a ban on new pipelines and fracking.
"I hear about it time and time again ... everywhere, there's so many issues with connectivity," NDP Leader Wab Kinew told the convention, which was held online.
Some delegates spoke of spotty or non-existent cell service on northern roads. Shelley Wiggins, a delegate from Swan River, told the convention rural students in her area are hard-pressed to get internet access.
"The solution that the school division has for them ... is to drive 30, 40 (minutes), even an hour into town and park outside the school building to access the internet," she said.
Manitoba Hydro has an extensive fibre-optic network along its major transmission lines, and the Progressive Conservative government issued a request for proposals last year to connect that network to more homes and businesses in outlying areas.
"Our government has engaged in a fair and open process that is designed to bring reliable connectivity to rural and northern Manitoba," Blake Robert, media relations director for the Tory cabinet, wrote in an email Saturday.
"We look forward to sharing the results of that process in the near future," Robert said, adding the issue was not resolved when the NDP was in government between 1999 and 2016.
Kinew said he is concerned the Tories may privatize the network. Manitoba Hydro recently folded its telecom division into its general operations, and a recent review of the Crown corporation by former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall suggests Hydro should focus on its core responsibilities.
Exactly what a new Crown corporation would look like under an NDP government — and whether it might enter retail service, for example — remains to be seen.
"We'll start working on articulating this vision a little bit more as we head into the next election," Kinew said in an interview after the convention.
On the province's current $11.90 hourly minimum wage, NDP delegates passed a resolution that called for it to be raised to a living wage, "keeping in mind the living wage may exceed $15 an hour when the NDP forms government."
Kinew said he thinks $15 an hour is achievable "over a term in government".
Delegates also approved a resolution that calls on the federal and provincial governments to ban any new pipeline projects, fracking and the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
The idea was resisted by some.
"We need to strategically plan where we're going to be three years from now and how the decision by this resolution may affect potential voters that support us," said delegate Ron Kostyshyn, who lost an attempt to have the matter referred to the NDP provincial council for further study.
Recent opinion polls have suggested the NDP have gained popular support as that of the governing Tories has dropped during the pandemic. A survey by Probe Research Inc. in December suggested the NDP had surpassed the Tories for the first time since 2016.
One political analyst said Manitobans seem to have become more comfortable with Kinew, who took over the NDP helm in 2017, and have been displeased with the Tory government's handing of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think, increasingly, people are probably familiar with Wab Kinew. They feel like they know him better than they did in the last election," said Royce Koop, who teaches political studies at the University of Manitoba.
"I think, increasingly, the NDP is in a good position to translate this (dissatisfaction with the government) into actual support, actual votes in the next election."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2021
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press