Opinion

It is arguably the biggest question hanging over the Manitoba Progressive Conservative leadership race: will the next leader, who will also become premier, keep vaccine mandates and passports?

It is arguably the biggest question hanging over the Manitoba Progressive Conservative leadership race: will the next leader, who will also become premier, keep vaccine mandates and passports?

It's hardly surprising vaccine mandates would invade the Tory leadership.

The imposition of vaccine mandates is one of the most incendiary issues in Canadian politics right now. After months of refusals, Ontario and Alberta are scrambling to get vaccine mandates in place. The issue also proved to be impactful in the federal election campaign.

However, what doesn't make sense is the utter confusion the two leadership candidates have created on one of the most important issues of the pandemic.

The issue burst into the leadership campaign on Sept. 10 when former MP and federal cabinet minster Shelly Glover entered the race and stunned onlookers by declaring her steadfast opposition to vaccine mandates.

Glover, who had worked as an aide in a personal care home during the pandemic, said it was unfair to demand health-care workers be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment. Despite working in health care, she also said she personally had not heard a compelling scientific or medical argument that indicated mandates were necessary.

Glover, who had worked as an aide in a personal care home during the pandemic, said it was unfair to demand health–care workers be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment. Despite working in health care, she also said she personally had not heard a compelling scientific or medical argument that indicated mandates were necessary.

In an interview later that day, however, Glover softened her stance. She said she would support vaccine mandates if it was clear, on a medical and scientific basis, it was the best way of protecting people.

For someone applying to serve as Manitoba's premier, it was a horrible debut.

Her only opponent, MLA and former cabinet minister Heather Stefanson has taken a different but nonetheless confusing position.

After saying very little on vaccine mandates since launching her campaign in mid-August, Stefanson re-entered the debate on Sept. 16 by posting a video to social media in which she said, "I don't believe in mandatory vaccines."

In that brief but largely unintelligible video, Stefanson seems unable to make a clear statement to explain her position.

In a statement that is little more than a string of non-sequiturs held together with some buzz words, Stefanson talks about "what is currently in place right now" and ensuring that "those individuals" who work in health care, education and government "get tested."

So, does Stefanson oppose public health orders that require public-facing workers in health care and education to be fully vaccinated? Is she suggesting that vaccinations no longer be mandated and that only testing be done? What about private businesses that have been compelled by public health orders to limit access to the fully vaccinated?

The spokeswoman said Stefanson supports current public health orders (which include vaccine mandates and passports), and would not lift those requirements until public health officials say it's OK. But she does not believe anyone should be forcibly vaccinated.

A Stefanson campaign spokeswoman would later explain Stefanson does not oppose "vaccine mandates" per se, but does oppose "mandatory vaccines."

Asked to elaborate, the spokeswoman said Stefanson supports current public health orders (which include vaccine mandates and passports), and would not lift those requirements until public health officials say it's OK. But she does not believe anyone should be forcibly vaccinated.

There's a lot to unpack in that statement, and none of it makes sense.

First, nobody is proposing that Manitobans be forcibly vaccinated. Stefanson is answering a question that nobody is asking.

More importantly, if the reaction she got from other social media users is any indication, everyone thought she was talking about vaccine mandates, not mandatory vaccinations. Her campaign denied that was her intention.

Or was it?

More than a few Tories are afraid Glover and Stefanson are trying to out-pander each other to draw the support of the far-right wing of the party, which was mobilized by the near-candidacy of former party treasurer Ken Lee.

More than a few Tories are afraid Glover and Stefanson are trying to out–pander each other to draw the support of the far–right wing of the party, which was mobilized by the near–candidacy of former party treasurer Ken Lee.

A vehement opponent of all government measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, Lee seemed to have met most of the requirements to be a candidate, but was disqualified for reasons that remain unclear.

Although he won't have his name on the leadership ballot, it seems Lee's effect on the race is still being felt.

Party sources say Lee sold a significant number of memberships, somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000, many of them to the anti-vaccine crowd. Given the PC party had about 5,000 members in good standing prior to the leadership campaign, that is not an insignificant influx of new blood. But it hardly justifies the two official candidates turning their backs on the best principles of science and public health.

There are really only two possible explanations.

First, neither Glover nor Stefanson is articulate enough to make a clear statement on what is easily one of the most important issues of our time.

Or, both candidates are so greedy and cynical they are prepared to say anything to capture the support of a motivated, far-right wing of the PC party.

Both explanations are unbecoming for the candidates, may prove to be demoralizing for PC party members, and are no doubt worrisome to the public.

There were many Manitobans — both within and outside the PC party — who thought things could only get better when the utterly unpopular Brian Pallister stepped down as premier.

The performance of Glover and Stefanson on this important issue suggests we should not rush to any conclusions.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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