Heather Stefanson chosen as Manitoba's 1st female premier

·5 min read
Manitoba's newly elected Progressive Conservative Leader and the province's incoming premier, Heather Stefanson, speaks at a victory party after defeating Shelly Glover in a leadership race in Winnipeg. (John Woods/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Manitoba's newly elected Progressive Conservative Leader and the province's incoming premier, Heather Stefanson, speaks at a victory party after defeating Shelly Glover in a leadership race in Winnipeg. (John Woods/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Heather Stefanson will be the first woman to lead the province of Manitoba as premier, party members decided on Saturday, although her opponent is so far refusing to concede.

Under a slim margin, Progressive Conservative Party members chose Stefanson — the favourite of the governing party's establishment — as their next leader. She will, by extension, become Manitoba's 24th premier.

Only 363 votes separated the two candidates.

"I am truly honoured and humbled to stand here with all of you, making history in Manitoba," Stefanson said, after her victory was announced at a party convention at the Victoria Inn in west Winnipeg.

Stefanson won 8,405 votes of the votes cast — 51 per cent — beating the 8,042 votes earned by her opponent, Shelly Glover.

John Woods/The Canadian Press
John Woods/The Canadian Press

But her victory may be undermined by the ongoing controversy with missing ballots. At least 1,200 people did not receive their mail-in ballots days before the vote, but the party brushed aside those concerns.

Opponent refuses to accept results

In a scrum after the vote count, Glover wouldn't say whether she'll accept or challenge the results.

"I'm not conceding," she said, vowing to celebrate with her family and supporters before considering her next steps.

George Orle, chair of the PC leadership election committee, told convention attendees the party issued replacement ballots for every member who said they did not receive any.

"I want to ensure you that no system is perfect, but ours was very far away from inept or disorganized and that there is no one who was deliberately disenfranchised in this process," he said.

Stefanson and Glover embraced after Stefanson gave her victory speech.

John Woods/The Canadian Press
John Woods/The Canadian Press

The premier-designate, a veteran provincial cabinet minister, says she told Glover it is time to unite the party. It is the same message she extended to other party members in her victory speech.

"A strong PC party is vital for a strong Manitoba and together," she said. "I know we will come out of this race more united than ever, with a focus on earning a third consecutive majority government in 2023."

Asked about the tight margin of victory, Stefanson said her campaign "never, ever, for one day, took this for granted."

Pallister's resignation set off race

The leadership race was triggered after former premier Brian Pallister, whose popularity was in a tailspin in his final months in power, announced in August that he planned to step down. Cabinet minister Kelvin Goertzen took over the job in the interim.

The new premier-designate will be sworn in at a later date.

Stefanson has repeatedly promised a more conciliatory approach to leadership than Pallister, her sometimes brash predecessor who was never one to avoid confrontation.

She said she heard from Manitobans who want a different tone from government.

"I heard loud and clear that they want to see us take a much more collaborative approach when it comes to working with other levels of government and with stakeholders in our community," she said.

Nearly every member of the party caucus — who wasn't required to remain neutral — backed her leadership bid. She also curried the favour of Conservative MPs, government staffers, party elites and business leaders.

Stefanson said addressing the surgical backlog in the health-care system and rebuilding the economy as two of her priorities.

John Woods/The Canadian Press
John Woods/The Canadian Press

The historic nature of her selection as Manitoba's first female premier isn't lost on her.

"I'm excited to embrace that. I've worked in other areas in my life where I've been the only woman around the table, so that's nothing new to me," Stefanson said.

"But what I also want to do out of all of this is to encourage more women not only to run but to get involved in politics."

Although Stefanson was the overwhelming choice of Tory opinion-leaders, she carries baggage as a stalwart supporter of Pallister's government, which became unpopular in large part due to its handling of the pandemic.

Political opponents have wasted no time tying Stefanson to what they perceive as the party's past mistakes. The NDP, the Official Opposition in Manitoba, already launched an attack website against Stefanson on Saturday, claiming she is a "bad repeat" of Pallister's reign.

"People who were fed up and frustrated with Pallister, angry even toward him … may say, 'She should have spoken up,'" Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said on Friday.

John Woods/The Canadian Press
John Woods/The Canadian Press

Stefanson was health minister during the pandemic's disastrous third wave in the spring, during which Manitoba had to send patients out of province.

Meanwhile, Glover, her only opponent in the leadership race, ran as an outsider, promising to shake up the status quo.

Glover, a former Conservative MP in Stephen Harper's government and Winnipeg police officer, was the underdog candidate from the beginning, but Thomas says she cherished her outsider status. She argued the party has lost touch with Manitobans and warned if its approach didn't change, it risked losing power.

She said she was crushed some party members didn't get a chance to vote.

Number of voters encouraging: PCs

With more than 16,000 ballots cast of a possible 25,000, the return rate is "something to be proud of, not something to be ashamed of," George Orle, chair of the leadership election committee, said.

It has been rare in Manitoba's history for political party members to select their next leader and, by extension, the premier at the same time.

Ahead of Saturday's leadership announcement, Thomas said the Tories, who won back-to-back elections in 2016 and 2019, have a challenging road to climb to win over Manitobans regardless of who leads the party.

The PCs appear to have made gains, according to a recent Probe Research poll after Pallister's retirement, but the poll suggests they trail the NDP in support.

"When bonds of trust are broken, they're exceedingly difficult to repair," Thomas said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement he looked forward to working with Stefanson on the issues that matter most to Manitobans, including "infrastructure priorities, strengthening the health care system, delivering on $10-a-day child care, accelerating climate action, and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples."

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