Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Shelly Glover may have been a cop, but when she squared off against rival Heather Stefanson at a townhall meeting Tuesday night, she was more of a street fighter.

Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Shelly Glover may have been a cop, but when she squared off against rival Heather Stefanson at a townhall meeting Tuesday night, she was more of a street fighter.

The former Conservative MP came out swinging, comparing her real-life experiences to those of the mild-mannered former health minister, whom she pilloried for staying in the backroom rather than leading during the third wave of COVID-19 when ICU patients were sent out of province.

The party needs a "head-snapping, significant change of culture," Glover said.

"If we don't change the party, Manitobans will change the government," said the former federal heritage minister. She criticized the PC government's track record and top-down leadership, which she said fails to consult with people at the grassroots level.

For the first time in many years, the PC party is having a leadership contest after years of its leaders being acclaimed, including former leader Brian Pallister who stepped down this month.

Heather Stefanson delivers remarks at the Conservative leaders debate at Norwood Hotel on Tuesday.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Heather Stefanson delivers remarks at the Conservative leaders debate at Norwood Hotel on Tuesday.

The Conservative Club of Winnipeg hosted the debate-style "discussion" at the Norwood Hotel ballroom, where public health orders limited the capacity at 200 and attendees were required to provide proof that they had been fully vaccinated. The event was livestreamed on Facebook.

Supporters of Glover and Stefanson packed the room and responded to each of their answers with cheers and hoots. There was no heckling or interruptions. While the event was civil, it was tense at times as Glover went after Stefanson and the PC government that she wants to lead.

The historic event was moderated by Susan Thompson, the first woman elected mayor of Winnipeg.

"This is a moment in history and I want everyone to understand that," Thompson said in an interview before the event. "I was the first woman to become mayor and that only took 118 years, and our province has only taken 151 years," to have a woman premier. "How marvellous is this? Two women candidates, one of them will be premier, I'm moderating this, and the city is ruling the roost tonight."

In opening remarks, Glover said she's got the real-life experience, empathy and understanding that will be needed to lead the party. Stefanson said she's always had a collaborative approach, has crisscrossed the province listening to Manitobans and has the experience in government to "hit the ground running as leader."

Glover, who trained as a health care aide to work at personal care homes during the pandemic, accused her opponent of staying in the backrooms during her stint as health minister during the third wave, rather than leading.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Shelly Glover speaks at the Conservative leaders debate Tuesday.</p>

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Shelly Glover speaks at the Conservative leaders debate Tuesday.

"I went to the front lines," Glover said. She took shots at the PC government for closing rural offices of government departments and not co-operating with municipalities on federal-provincial infrastructure projects.

Stefanson reminded her opponent that she's not the enemy.

"We need to work together and remember who the real enemy is — it's Wab Kinew and the NDP."

Stefanson said she would work to make the PCs a "bigger tent party" by renewing and modernizing it.

Both candidates have been accused of pandering to the opponents of vaccine mandates that require all provincial front-line workers who deal with vulnerable populations to be fully vaccinated or undergo COVID-19 testing up to three times a week. That subject didn't come up during the town hall.

Outside the hotel, there was no sign of protesters who had demonstrated after the PC party refused to allow Ken Lee, a critic of pandemic public health orders, to run for leader. Lee, the party's former chief financial officer, accused the party of dirty tricks for keeping him off the ballot even though he'd met all the requirements, including selling more than 1,000 party memberships and raising the $25,000 entry fee.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Susan Thompson, Winnipeg's first female mayor, moderates the Conservative leaders debate.</p>

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Susan Thompson, Winnipeg's first female mayor, moderates the Conservative leaders debate.

Organizers promised each contestant would have time to provide a "fulsome" answer. The first respondent to a question was aloted two minutes, 30 seconds to respond, followed by their opponent, who received three minutes and 30 seconds to answer, with the first respondent getting one minute for the last word.

Thompson said it was the first time she moderated a town hall event and only agreed to do it because it wouldn't be a debate but "an exchange of ideas."

The party is using a one-member, one-vote system to elect a new leader on Oct. 30.

Pallister resigned on Sept. 1 and a caretaker premier — Steinbach MLA and government house leader Kelvin Goertzen — was sworn in. Either Glover or Stefanson will take on Kinew in the next provincial election on or before Oct. 3, 2023.

Earlier in the day, federal Tory Peter MacKay said on social media that he would not endorse either candidate.

"I want to be clear about the@PC_Manitoba leadership race. While I am supportive of both my former colleague Shelly Glover's candidacy as well as my friend @HStefansonMB who brings significant experience, as a Nova Scotian, I do not wish to insert myself in this important decision."

On Monday, Glover's campaign had sent a message, which was attributed to him, with the headline "Shelly Glover will make a great leader and premier."

"I am writing to voice my support for Shelly Glover as leader of the Manitoba PC party and the province's next premier," the message said. "I had the privilege of working with Shelly as a member of Parliament for several years and was always impressed with her dedication to service and her ability to bring people from divergent backgrounds together in search of solutions to complex problems." MacKay purportedly urges readers to buy or renew their party memberships.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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