OTTAWA — Politicians have been urging people to social distance for months, but two of Manitoba’s most powerful men haven’t seen each other since long before the pandemic began.
MP Dan Vandal, Manitoba’s sole cabinet minister, said he last spoke with Premier Brian Pallister at Grey Cup victory festivities more than a year ago.
"During these tough pandemic times, Canadians expect their governments to work together," Vandal told the Free Press. "It's quite obvious the province doesn't have that same perspective."
Pallister’s office was quick to reject Vandal's comment.
Vandal said he’s in frequent contact with Manitoba cabinet ministers on various files, but said he requested to meet with the premier to sort out a plan for the viability of Churchill. He never got that meeting. Pallister's office said Vandal was directed to speak with a minister.
The Liberal MP for St. Boniface-St. Vital said it would be better if he could meet with Pallister and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman to sort out issues that affect all three levels of government.
Vandal’s predecessor, Jim Carr, focused on getting face-time with the two Brians, arguing that the meth crisis and problems related to rolling out infrastructure funding could only be resolved if all three were in touch. But it’s unclear if those efforts in early 2019 bore fruit.
Pallister’s office suggested there isn’t a need for such tri-level confabs.
"The premier is in regular communication with the prime minister, deputy prime minister, and minister of intergovernmental affairs, in order to ensure that Manitoba’s priorities are clearly articulated at the highest levels of the federal government," wrote Blake Robert, a spokesman for the premier.
“During these tough pandemic times, Canadians expect their governments to work together. It's quite obvious the province doesn't have that same perspective.” – MP Dan Vandal
Vandal said those talks have been made more difficult thanks to the Pallister government’s frequent criticism of Ottawa.
In October, a Manitoba government minister claimed his order of American N-95 masks had been seized at the federal government's behest, which Manitoba’s contractor said never happened.
In June, when Manitoba’s low COVID-19 numbers were the envy of North America, Pallister said the federal CERB subsidy was an incentive for people to stay away from work.
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Peguis First Nation is proceeding with its “relaxed” lockdown days this week, with its chief suggesting Premier Brian Pallister could better protect Manitoba amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of slagging band councils.
“Our restrictions are over and above what’s currently in place in our province,” Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson told the Free Press.
This month, Pallister castigated Trudeau's cabinet for not pressuring First Nations to make their COVID-19 rules dovetail with the province’s restrictions on gatherings.
"They use every opportunity they can to criticize our government. They may be focused on us, but we're focused on Canadians," said Vandal, whose comments resemble the premier's remarks.
Pallister has sought more generous health transfer payments for years, and is upset that Ottawa instead offers money for specific areas such as mental health and care homes, which he chalks up to prestige projects.
"When Ottawa invests its money under this government, they want to get noticed when they do it. That’s a problem," Pallister said in September.
Vandal has repeatedly chastised the Pallister government for slowly rolling out announcements related to cost-shared infrastructure programs. Other provinces have initiated plans more quickly.
Manitoba has argued if there is a delay, it's due to a convoluted infrastructure plan that includes numerous criteria. But Vandal did not change his tune Tuesday.
"We have a billion dollars to invest in infrastructure, and frankly, I'm disappointed the province has taken its time in trying to access that money," he said.
Despite that fresh criticism, Vandal said he hopes to get together with the two Brians in 2021, even if it’s over a virtual call.
"There's a new year ahead, so we'll keep talking. We'll keep making the request and hopefully, we'll get some success," he said.
“We have a billion dollars to invest in infrastructure, and frankly, I'm disappointed the province has taken its time in trying to access that money.” – MP Dan Vandal
"I will continue to work in good faith with the province on issues that are important to Manitobans."
But Pallister’s office said relations with Ottawa are just fine.
"Contrary to some reports, the government of Manitoba has a productive working relationship with the federal government," wrote Robert.
"When there are differences in opinion or approach, they are communicated directly to the prime minister, federal ministers, or senior federal officials."