Who is our new premier? She is just Heather, and she listens to you

Dorothy Dobbie

She is just Heather, a serious, down to earth, fun-loving mother, businesswoman and politician who has stepped up to do the job of encouraging Manitobans to be all that they can be.

Manitoba’s new premier, Heather Stefanson, has her feet firmly planted in the Manitoba soil and her heart tied to its future. Like the endless prairies skies around her, she sees that future to be limitless. She believes in us and our capacity to do great things if government gets out of our way.

Whether Conservative or NDP, those are the Manitoba values and that is the gutsiness that made this province great, values that we all share regardless of what political stripe we are. Heather believes in us.

“I can’t wait to get COVID-19 behind us and to do what needs to be done to get our economy going again,” she says. “My first priority after COVID-19 is to create hope for our future.”

That does not mean that she plans to do it alone. It only takes a moment to understand that this Premier is all about collaboration, listening and learning before making snap judgments. She values what others have to say and welcomes advice.

“I want to get the message to the world that Manitoba is open for business,” she says. “We have to find out what the barriers have been to more and better investment in our province.” She adds, “And we have to deal with them.” 

You have already seen and heard all this but who is the secret Heather? Surprise! There are no secrets. She is who she is; warm, understanding, sensitive to others but practical and pragmatic. She does what needs to be done, efficiently and calmly. She understands the need to separate the public persona from the private one, although there is little difference. She laughs, telling how in a recent interview, the interviewer started out with a question about how it felt to be booed when she showed up at the Bomber game.

“I didn’t take it personally,” she said. “People are frustrated with COVID-19 and all the restrictions. I don’t blame them. They feel the need to blame someone. It is natural to take it out on Government.”

She also realizes that people today have little respect for politicians. “I understand that it is about the institution. It is not personal.” Her maturity comes through as she says. “Actually, knowing this is kind of liberating. I am still me.” That is very encouraging. There is no messiah complex here. She knows who she is, understands both her strengths and limitations and looks for the strongest and truest people to support the work she does. Note that it is about supporting the work, not herself.

By the time you read this, she may already have made public her choices for cabinet. If we can go by her early choices for support of her work, people such as Don Leitch and Sean Kavanagh who bring experience and maturity to their work, we can feel pretty good about who will take the top jobs in the future. 

Her approach is to encourage, rule by example and have high expectations. When asked about making sure MLAs answer emails and phone calls, her answer demonstrates this. “I think that when members understand that their voice counts, that they can speak without fear at caucus meetings and that my door is open, they will have the confidence to respond to their constituents,” she says, making it clear that lecturing and scolding is not her style.

In support of this was her early response to Bill 64 which had received widespread opposition from the public. Listening to her caucus and cabinet ministers, the Premier had the proposed legislation withdrawn. While there is public support for reform, new legislation will take all voices into consideration.

Right now, the Premier is focused on dealing with COVID-19 and the health care situation. She is asking critical questions, learning, getting right to the heart of the matter. She meets with chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin regularly to get a handle on what is really happening, such as the effect of the Omicron variant on hospital and ICU occupation. As of this writing, a day before Christmas, the numbers are flat, encouraging, but a situation that needs to be monitored closely for a while longer.

The Premier is also trying to create a reasonable relationship with the Opposition, something it is not easy to do. Wab Kinew is no Garry Doer, with whom Heather served as a member of the Opposition in her early career. She will keep trying though. She realizes that Opposition is an important part of government, citing Mr. Doer as a role model.

One of her clear priorities is mending relationships with Indigenous people, learning from them and consulting in areas that affect them. She has tremendous respect for the women in the communities.

Another priority is the provincial relationship with the City of Winnipeg. She backed up her assertion about this by reaching out to Mayor Bowman soon after being sworn in.

The Premier believes that government is responsible for governing, rather than abrogating its essential work to agencies that are not accountable to the electorate.

It has been an exhausting three months since she declared her intention to run for the top job. During the leadership campaign, she travelled to every corner of the province, listening to people, getting to know them. In the two months since her investiture, it has been a non-stop learning curve, constant meetings, and as Sean Kavanagh put it, “40 brush fires an hour”.

Heather takes it in stride, though. “I am exhausted,” she laughingly admits, looking forward to a few days off for Christmas. 

Despite that, she is already thinking ahead to what comes next in her quest to support our province in being all we know it to be. To repeat her now famous comment, “Stay tuned!”