Two weeks after her swearing in, questions are being raised about the priorities of Manitoba’s new premier, after she failed to address a growing health crisis last week but made time for a controversial Winnipeg shock jock.
As the pandemic in Manitoba worsens, Heather Stefanson has publicly avoided answering questions about rising COVID-19 cases and the province's massive surgical backlog. On Wednesday, Stefanson slipped past a reporter after a cabinet meeting, leaving Health Minister Audrey Gordon to face the public and handle the tough questions at a news conference Friday.
Instead, Stefanson was a guest on Dave Wheeler's radio show in Winnipeg and visited Brandon last week to meet with local leaders and media.
"As a new premier who wants to separate herself from the previous premier and to show that, not only is she going to do things differently, but she is prepared and willing to lead during a time of crisis, ducking and hiding is not the way you get that message across," said Brandon University political science Prof. Kelly Saunders.
"How you get that message across is by speaking to Manitobans, by being available to the media — by showing that you are in charge and that you are leading through these very challenging times," Saunders said.
"This seems to be the exact opposite of that."
The official opposition is calling on Stefanson to step up and lead.
"Families are worried about the fourth wave," said Malaya Marcelino, NDP critic for legislative and public affairs. "They need to hear from a premier who has a plan but, so far, Premier Stefanson is taking the same approach she took as health minister the last time case counts rose — hiding from the public and the media.
"As public health officials warn us again about the strain on our health-care system and thousands of surgeries are once again delayed, Manitobans need a premier who will take responsibility and show leadership... that fixes problems instead of hiding from them.” — Malaya Marcelino, NDP critic for legislative and public affairs
"As public health officials warn us again about the strain on our health-care system and thousands of surgeries are once again delayed, Manitobans need a premier who will take responsibility and show leadership... that fixes problems instead of hiding from them," Marcelino said.
Last week, Stefanson answered softball questions and joked around with Wheeler, who was fired in 2018 by 92.1 CITI FM over derogatory remarks about trans people. He was also suspended in 2016 for writing songs that included racist and sexist stereotypes.
Last week, Wheeler and his sidekicks on Energy 106 FM thanked Stefanson for granting them her first radio interview. She chuckled and thanked them.
The premier's decision "shows a lack of political judgment on several fronts and poor political strategy," said Saunders.
"She has spoken repeatedly about wanting to promote reconciliation with Indigenous people," Saunders said. "Speaking to an individual who has made racist comments in the past is not the way you go about proving to Indigenous people that you are serious about reconciliation and that you truly understand the damaging impacts of racism in our society."
Stefanson's move won't help the Progressive Conservatives garner more votes from Winnipeg women — a part of the electorate the party needs to win over if it's going to broaden its base and win the 2023 general election, Saunders said.
"We don't take well to individuals that make sexist and inflammatory comments, regardless of ideology — that's just something that rubs us the wrong way and for good reason," she said.
"Engaging with an individual who has said misogynistic comments and comments that are deeply inflammatory to the LGBTQ and trans community is not the appropriate way of going about doing that," said Saunders, adding Stefanson's gender gives her an advantage over NDP Leader Wab Kinew.
Stefanson did not accommodate interview requests again Monday.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.