Former Tory health minister Heather Stefanson told Manitobans on May 18 the province’s hospital system had enough intensive-care unit capacity to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients during the third wave.
The next day, Shared Health announced three ICU patients had to be airlifted to a Thunder Bay hospital because they could not be treated here.
It was the start of one of the worst health-care crises in Manitoba history. Shared Health flew 57 ICU patients to other provinces in the following weeks. Manitoba was the only province in Canada to do so.
Three days later, Stefanson went on medical leave.
She was appointed health minister in January. Under her watch, the province had more than four months to prepare for the third wave, which would have included ensuring there was adequate hospital capacity to handle a surge in patients. She failed.
Under her watch, the province had more than four months to prepare for the third wave, which would have included ensuring there was adequate hospital capacity to handle a surge in patients. She failed.
In the weeks leading up to the third wave, multiple infectious-disease and medical experts strongly and repeatedly urged Stefanson to impose strict public-health measures to avoid a spike in cases and hospitalizations (which were occurring in neighbouring provinces). Stefanson refused. The expert advice was ignored until it was too late. Many Manitobans died unnecessarily as a result.
Stefanson made few public appearances in the weeks leading up to the third wave. She was largely invisible. As the minister of health, she was supposed to be the lead member of cabinet fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, yet she was nowhere to be seen most days. She regularly turned down interview requests and had little, if anything, to say publicly. That’s not leadership.
Stefanson now wants to be the premier of Manitoba and the vast majority of the Progressive Conservative caucus is behind her. Meanwhile, the party’s executive council has crafted leadership election rules that favour Stefanson and crowd out most other interested and qualified people from running.
The former health minister and many of her caucus colleagues have been organizing for weeks, if not months, in preparation for the leadership contest, including during the third wave. Having the support of at least 70 per cent of caucus (who have the ability to sell thousands of memberships on behalf of Stefanson) almost a week before the rules were announced doesn’t materialize overnight. This was in the works for months.
The leadership rules give prospective candidates only three weeks to sign up the required 1,000 new party members (or renew existing memberships) and raise the $25,000 fee to enter the race —something the Stefanson team began working on long before the rules were announced. There are only two more weeks after that to sign up new members to vote in the leadership race; all this during a pandemic and on the eve of a fourth wave. Party members deserved more time and opportunity to pick a new leader.
The party elite decided long ago that Stefanson, a blue-blood Tory from one of the richest parts of Winnipeg, would be crowned to replace outgoing leader Brian Pallister. The plan offered them a smooth leadership transition that benefits party insiders, while forgoing the critical need to renew the party.
Tories must decide whether they want a failed health minister and a former deputy premier with close ties to Pallister as their leader going into the 2023 general election.
This is a party in desperate need of renewal. Even Families Minister Rochelle Squires, who was considering a run for leadership but bowed out this week, wrote in her statement that "collectively, I feel we’ve lost our way."
Fortunately for party members, the plan has been thwarted to some degree (two other candidates have since unofficially entered the race: former Conservative MP Shelly Glover and Tory MLA Shannon Martin). In a one-member, one-vote contest, members elect the next leader, not caucus.
Tories must decide whether they want a failed health minister and a former deputy premier with close ties to Pallister as their leader going into the 2023 general election. They have to figure out if a leader anointed by the party elite, who has achieved very little during her five years in cabinet, is their best strategy to beat the NDP (who have a staggering 33-point lead over the Tories in Winnipeg, where elections are won and lost).
It sounds like a losing strategy.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.