Premier working at a hectic pace to get us back on the pre-COVID track

Dorothy Dobbie

Sounding refreshed but still a bit exhausted, Premier Heather Stefanson made time when she woke in Brandon, after an announcement filled day, for our monthly interview. After five events the previous day, she napped on the journey west that evening, grabbed a quick bite to eat when she arrived, and fell into bed to be ready for the next round of events. One of these was to attend a breakfast put on by the “Let Women Lead” group of women elected to municipal government. One of the premier’s challenges will be to examine the way the Municipal Act allows male counterparts to “disempower” female mayors by passing bylaws that limit their ability to lead.

Face to face, day by day, the province is getting to know and appreciate their new premier.

That is just one of the issues the premier faces every day. Her schedule is exhausting but she is determined to meet as many Manitobans in person as she can to learn firsthand about their concerns, developing as she does so, a deep and personal understanding of our needs, wishes and aspirations. She knows she cannot rely on the heritage media to carry her message – or yours, for that matter, so this old-fashioned but grueling way of being in touch with people is her answer.

It has been a very busy month, starting with a plethora of support for social services throughout the province. On April 1, the province announced a Social Impact Bond agreement with pharmacists to help people stop smoking. The agreement will see a cost sharing arrangement between the province and Shoppers Drug Mart (who will invest $2 million in matching funds with the province). On April 4, $500,000 was announced for 10 residential school healing centres in the province. On April 5, the province announced a two-year extension to support single parent employment opportunities. On April 7, there was an investment of $7 million in education to help students with special needs . . .

And that was just the first week.

Heather followed this up with an investment of $1.4 million on technology upgrades in schools, plus the beginning of major renovations to Ecole St. Malo. There have been about a dozen such announcements at schools across the province since the leadership change. 

On April 11, the welcome news came that the Canadian Federation of Independent Business had recognized Manitoba with an “A” rating, the highest of any province in Canada, for reducing red tape! And she has just begun to dismantle the barriers facing business in Manitoba.

The next day was budget day featuring an unprecedented $7.2 billion investment in repairing the health system, reducing wait times for surgeries and diagnostics, creating a new dedicated program to address mental health, adding $11 million to beef up nursing enrollment, setting aside $812 million for northern and rural health care, and adding $32 million for seniors’ care, to name just a few of the measures. Critical among these was the upgrade and expansion to the St. Boniface Hospital Emergency room which the Premier announced the day before her journey to Brandon.

This past month, Heather has also met with the Prime Minister, promising as she did so, a more collaborative approach with him to address Manitoba concerns. She has previously also created a detente with the Winnipeg mayor.

The last week of the month was as busy as the first. Highlights included a new $50 million Venture Capital Fund that has been requested for years, support for the Toba Centre initiative at Assiniboine Park to bring services for abused children under one roof, a digital technology upgrade for the police, added support for the resettlement of newcomers, new funding for family violence shelters and an exceptional investment in a Healthy Northern Food program. There was $29 million to support disability services and financial help to expand services by elders and knowledge keepers in schools for indigenous people, a major commitment to rebuild Manitoba highways, a look back at the nine social impact programs that are currently in place to see how they can be made better, and an announcement by the Lt. Governor and the Premier about a Queen Elizabeth Platinum Jubilee medal to be awarded to 1,000 deserving Manitobans this summer. . .

This does not cover it all. The Premier has accelerated long-needed plans and is working behind the scenes to address dozens of other issues to kick start the economy and get Manitoba working again as COVID-19 wanes. Her communications manager, Sean Kavanaugh, marveled, “We have packed a year’s worth of work into six months. We have not just gone through a leadership change; we have had a complete change in government.”

These are significant adjustments because they enable the work to move quickly and smoothly through the system. Ministers are being urged to take important decisions in a way that did not happen previously. Most are now veterans but even the new ones are meeting the challenge with an invigorated spirit of energy and optimism. This is ratcheting up activity and making our Manitoba feel like the enterprising, can-do province it used to be.

“It has been an exacting but exciting time,” Heather says, adding, “Getting through a budget put everything into focus.”

Fortunately, the Premier has a high-level view and knows her priorities: health and economic growth. She knows getting there takes patience and planning. “We have met some major milestones, but we are getting into a routine and making improvements,” she says. “We are looking at ways to make Manitoba more competitive. As part of this, we are setting up an economic advisory team to see the best way to create tax competitiveness.” These activities include looking at red tape in the mining sector (“We have such huge potential in the North: copper, gold, silica, rare earth minerals,” she says) and ensuring that interdepartmental paralysis is addressed. Her choice of Don Leitch as the senior civil servant is a critical part of the success here. So far, her people judgment skills have proven impeccable.

This is my fifth interview with Premier Heather Stefanson. Each time, I speak with her, my respect grows. As Kevin Twomey, long time owner of T & T Seeds, said to me, “I am getting to appreciate the Premier! She is a real person. She is direct and she says what she believes . . . I think she is doing a great job!”

She is.