Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson has rebuilt her cabinet, adding a third health department and bringing back into the fold a popular former minister.
"We’ve seen through the pandemic that there is a need for more emphasis on health care in the province," Stefanson told reporters after the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday.
The overwhelmed health portfolio has been split among three ministers, keeping Audrey Gordon as main health minister in charge of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, clearing the massive surgical backlog and improving quality of life for Manitobans.
"The premier has a lot of confidence in Audrey Gordon," said University of Manitoba political studies Prof. Christopher Adams. As a former health minister, Stefanson knows what that department needs, he said.
Stefanson promoted backbencher MLA Scott Johnston (Assiniboia) to oversee the new department of seniors and long-term care. Johnston, who told reporters he is himself a senior, is tasked with implementing all recommendations of the Stevenson report, ordered after the deaths of several residents at the Maples Personal Care Home in 2020.
"I think there needs to be more of a focus on seniors," the premier said.
Sarah Guillemard was moved from conservation and climate to the new department of mental health and community wellness. She is expected to work with community groups to better address addictions and mental health issues made worse by the pandemic.
Eileen Clarke, who was Indigenous and northern relations minister before she quit then-premier Brian Pallister’s cabinet last summer, is now municipal relations minister. The MLA for Agassiz resigned after Pallister appeared to defend the actions of colonial settlers. She later expressed frustration at the level of communication with the former premier.
"That changed 100 per cent the day this premier took office," Clarke told reporters Tuesday. "I have no regrets for my resignation. I did it for all the right reasons.
"For the premier to invite me back into cabinet was really a great day."
Two other new faces are joining cabinet: Doyle Piwniuk (Turtle Mountain) is minister of transportation and infrastructure; Andrew Smith (Lagimodiere) takes over as culture, sport and heritage minister.
Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere, who replaced Clarke last summer and immediately offended Indigenous leaders with ill-informed remarks about residential schools, is staying put, Stefanson said Tuesday.
"I think Al is doing a great job out there and he’s going to continue in that role," the premier said, noting Lagimodiere redeemed himself by meeting with and learning from Indigenous leaders and communities.
MLAs Ralph Eichler and Cathy Cox were dropped from cabinet.
Eichler was replaced as agriculture minister by Derek Johnson (Interlake-Gimli). Cox was replaced by Smith, with Families Minister Rochelle Squires taking over the status of women file.
"There always is renewal in cabinet. Members move in and out of cabinet with different shuffles," the premier said, thanking Cox and Eichler (who was hospitalized for heart problems this summer) for their work, calling them "wonderful individuals."
Cox was seen leaving the legislature Tuesday carrying a box full of framed pictures. The Kildonan-River East MLA said she wasn’t prepared to comment on her departure from cabinet.
Stefanson has resurrected the labour portfolio and given it to former central services minister Reg Helwer. He will be in charge of labour, consumer protection and government services, as well as minister responsible for the civil service and the Public Utilities Board.
After Pallister had battled the civil service at every turn, the new labour ministry aims to improve that relationship, the premier said.
"I think we need to take a collaborative approach moving forward."
Other major changes include shifting the finance portfolio to Cameron Friesen from Scott Fielding — who Stefanson said moves to the portfolio of natural resources and northern development.
Friesen was replaced as justice minister by Kelvin Goertzen, who remains government house leader. Goertzen’s former legislative and public affairs portfolio is no more.
The Crown services portfolio is being split up, with different agencies being handled by different ministers. Its former minister, Jeff Wharton, takes over the conservation and climate department.
Wayne Ewasko (Lac du Bonnet) is now minister of education and early childhood learning. That file’s former minister, Cliff Cullen, who had almost ushered in Bill 64 that would’ve eliminated most elected school boards, becomes deputy premier and minister of economic development, investment and trade.
Jon Reyes takes over from Ewasko in advanced education, skills and immigration.
Rather than promoting MLAs based on where votes are needed to win the 2023 election — such as among women and in the Winnipeg region — Stefanson is relying on experience and putting her most skilled stickhandlers in charge of critical portfolios, said Adams.
"Justice is often a lightning rod for big issues that hit the media," he said as an example. Goertzen is a lawyer and a skilled politician who can manage controversies that arise within law and MPI, his other area of responsibility.
With an economy sideswiped by the COVID-19 pandemic, Friesen, who’s held the finance minister role before, has experience to navigate the next provincial budget expected no later than April, Adams said.
The cabinet shuffle won’t make a difference to Manitobans, the opposition said.
"As far as I can see, all the failed health ministers of the past still have a job in this cabinet and the person who brought you Bill 64 (Cullen) got a promotion today," said NDP Leader Wab Kinew. "Does that reflect the priorities of you and your family? No."
The shuffle was about optics, not action, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said.
"It’s really just putting a new gloss of paint on an old house."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.