By Dorothy Dobbie
“Here is where Manitoba is today,” Premier Heather Stefanson declared at a recent meeting.
“Overall, Manitoba has the third fastest growing economy in Canada after Alberta and Saskatchewan, but we have the fastest growth if you remove oil from the equation.”
She continued, “Full time employment is up 4.2% in the first half of 2023, highest among the provinces and Manitoba has the lowest unemployment rate in Canada at 4.2%.
“Labour income is up 4.3% in 2023, third highest among provinces. International exports are up 18.7%, the second highest among provinces.
“Immigration is up 37.9%, with skilled workers strengthening Manitoba’s population and boosting economic growth.
“Manitoba manufacturing sales are up 10.4%, number one in Canada!”
She concluded, “We are gaining momentum. We need to ensure we can keep the momentum going!”
Twenty-one months into her leadership, Manitoba has made strides not seen in this province for 50 years! And she has just begun.
It takes time.
The mantle of leadership fits differently on every shoulder. Some collapse under its burden. Some grow stronger. Heather Stefanson has grown.
When you start a new job, you are entering unknown territory, no matter how small or how large the job may be. It takes time to learn the ropes, to figure out the dynamics, and how things work. Becoming premier, despite being 25 years, in office is no different.
Think back to 21 months ago – not only did Heather slip on the heavy mantle of leadership, but she also stepped into the hell of COVID-19. Everyone was angry for one reason or another – some for the restrictions, some for the fact that they felt threatened by not enough restrictions. The lineups for surgery were incredible. People were dying because they could not get diagnosed. And fear permeated our every move.
But things were changing, and, within a few months, we saw the cloud lifting. Vaccinations were helping, the virus was waning, the pent-up demand for freedom of person was building. She acted. “Enough. Open the doors. Let the fresh air in. Folks who want to stay under cover, stay there, but others are free to choose.”
Now it was time to face the terrible results of the lockdown. All those lineups. Exhausted health care workers. Retiring doctors. An economy stifled for almost three years of shut down. An election was looming in less than two years. What to do about a whole field of MLAs who were exhausted by years of service? How do you rejuvenate a government that has been in office for six years?
Of course, she stumbled at an odd time. One or two small but significant mistakes, as is any mistake when you are the leader, were made. In retrospect, they were probably useful – never take your eye off the ball! It was tough – first female premier of the province – the media didn’t know how to take her. They still don’t.
Instinctively private, she had never cultivated a vibrant public personality. It never occurred to her to “run to the head of the parade” to establish her leadership as men do. She was just doing her best and working toward a better future for our province because she has a vision. She knows where she wants to take us and it’s forward.
Hired by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to help Mila Mulroney put together an office to handle all the mail she received, Mila put it this way according to the WFP in an October 2022 article, “She’s an individual who knows what she needs to do, and she sort of directed me in that way.” Despite having more experience in life and in politics at the time, Mulroney believes she learned more from Stefanson than the future premier learned from her during those months in 1992. “She has 90 percent of what all of us women would love to have, which is she knows exactly what she wants,” Mulroney said. “She gets up earlier than everybody, she stays up later. She manages to fill in more in her day than most everybody else. She thinks she’s no different than any other working woman or mother. Politics is not an easy field, but she’s very good at it.”
She also gets things done!
Almost as soon as she took over office, Heather was on her way to making needed changes in the way the premier’s office runs. Fed up with a sluggish and almost moribund bureaucracy, she set up a cabinet office for economic development which she herself chairs. Michael Swistun, a chartered financial analyst, with a string of business credits to his name, was made secretary.
This whole-of-government committee allows rapid decision making and action on a wide range of government activities focused on economic growth. It includes investment and trade; finance; advanced education, skills and immigration; Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations; transportation and infrastructure; natural resources and northern development; and agriculture. Decisions are made that include all the affected players to facilitate action.
She trusts her ministers to get things done. She expects them to get things done. And they are, but there is so much more to do.
Nor has she ignored the human side of government responsibilities. The list of accomplishments in health and welfare is even longer than those of the development side. She has tackled wait lists and chipped away at the most serious of them through bold moves such as buying help from out of the province, or wherever she can find it. She has made long awaited decisions to build schools, hire more teachers, train more health care workers, build hospitals, establish $10 a day childcare – the list goes on. She has established a task force to deal with homelessness and is tackling addiction and substance abuse.
She did all this while chairing the Council of the Federation for the past year and negotiating a better health care cost sharing deal with the feds.
The one thing she can’t do? Get the word out, thanks to a negative press who still hasn't figured out that a woman’s style is different from that of a man.
She doesn’t dwell on this. In her usual get-it-done style, she just puts her head down and continues to work. She listens to people, not reporters, she would say. And she is out there every day, listening to you, hearing you, and making the tough decision about how to reconcile differing opinions while doing the very best job possible for all.