Heather Stefanson, the first female premier, is no stranger to provincial politics. Stefanson served in various roles in Brian Pallister’s administration, including deputy premier. On the campaign trail, Stefanson promised to lead the Progressive Conservative party(PC) in a different direction, attempting to distance herself from Pallister’s contentious political legacy, but her inaction so far has left Manitobans wondering if the party’s insider candidate was the right choice.
After Pallister’s resignation following heavy criticism over his pandemic response and racist rants, the PCs were forced into a contentious leadership race. After winning the race by 363 votes, Stefanson vowed to face the various challenges affecting Manitobans, emphasizing issues like reconciliation, economic recovery, labour shortage and health care. However, alack of unity within the party is hampering these campaign promises. Shelly Glover, who ran against Stefanson in the election, questioned the integrity of the election results and filed court documents after alleged irregularities with the process. Glover maintains she has enough evidence to prove her claims, while the PC election committee officials are convinced the process was handled appropriately without favour.
According to recent polls, Manitoba’s New Democratic Party is already set to win two-in-five decided voters in the upcoming election. Once the provincial parliament reconvenes, Stefanson might have trouble regaining lost ground. Her parting views on implementing new health measures as a balanced approach heeding advice from public health officials and Manitoba businesses isa contradiction too deep to ignore — the results of this teetering strategy are already taking a toll on public health seeing as COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising steadily. But Stefanson’s mishandling of pandemic mandates is not the only place she finds herself following in her predecessor’s footsteps.
The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) called a legal strike on Nov. 2 for the fourth time in history due to the university administration’s inability to offer reasonable wage increases to facilitate recruitment and retention of staff members. Tough restrictions imposed on unions during the Pallister administration, which include restrictive mandate son raises and negotiations, is partly to blame. When asked about her stance on such mandates, Stefanson stated the province should have a more “collaborative approach” with unions, but her recent actions prove otherwise. On several occasions, UMFA and student-led associations who are standing in solidarity with professors have tried contacting the premier’s office without success. When a peaceful demonstration was held in front of her constituency office, it looked empty. That same day, Stefanson appeared to be meeting with the presidents of Assiniboine Community College and Brandon University.
The U of M is the largest post-secondary institution in the province and failure to negotiate satisfying contracts for UMFA members could have serious repercussions. For example, failing to retain staff in the faculty of nursing due to poor pay could prolong the nursing crisis. If the faculty is unable to recruit nursing educators and staff, fewer students will graduate, escalating the nursing shortage. Nursing professors have called on the provincial health minister and other cabinet members to deliberate with Stefanson in order to resolve the strike and allow free bargaining between the university administration and UMFA to prevent future labour disputes. Despite numerous efforts, Stefanson has remained frustratingly quiet, increasing uncertainty among students and infuriating faculty members.
Manitoba might have a new premier, but the policies implemented during her predecessor’s administration remain influential. The PC government’s ballyhoo rhetoric revolving around COVID-19 is inhibiting a safe recovery. Manitoba needs a new party to lead it through the pandemic, not new PC leadership. Stefanson has displayed a disappointing conformity to the PCs’ conventional approach to post-secondary education and funding. The only way to ensure quality education is by removing current bargaining mandates that limit staff recruitment and retainment. Manitobans want action and, despite her promises, Stefanson is not the leader who will bring it.