“You just need a little patience… and to let the professionals do their jobs”

Premier Heather Stefanson

Dorothy Dobbie

Patience and understanding: Heather’s way.

The crisis in the Ukraine was weighing heavily on the premier’s mind when we held our monthly interview the morning of Thursday, February 24. Russia had invaded Ukraine the night before.

“There are 180,000 Ukrainians living in Manitoba,” said Heather. “Most have friends or relatives in the Ukraine. We are going to do all we can to support them.”

It has been that kind of month, crisis after crisis, and no end in sight. Yet, the Premier handles it with calm and equilibrium. “We have to take to one day at a time. One hour at a time, in some cases. It is very important that we stick together, especially when there is an external threat. This is very real, and we have to work together.”

This is how she dealt with the trucker’s protest, understanding that they had a point of view that deserved to be taken seriously and a right to protest. “It takes a little bit of patience from everyone,” she says, “and you have to let the professionals do their jobs. I am very proud of the work that police did at both Emerson and on Broadway.” In both cases, after some respectful negotiation and dialogue, the truckers responded by moving on. In Winnipeg, some have retired to Memorial Park just as the Indigenous protesters moved to the East side lawn of the Legislature, where the encampment is still in place, although with temperatures in the -40s it is doubtful anyone is resident there right now.

It is not all about protest, though. Recently the Premier announced a reorganization of the province’s economic development strategy, giving it, along with health and the surgery backlog, the highest priority. To send a message to the interested world that Manitoba is indeed Open for Business, Heather has established an Economic Advisory Council that she herself will chair. Economic Development, Investment and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen will be her vice chair. Michael Swistun, who has a background in finance and venture capital in Manitoba, will head the secretariat and Tracey Maconachie, Deputy Minister to Minister Cullen, will serve as associate secretary of the Board supported by Deputy Minister of Families, Kathy Gerard.

The strategy will include real opportunities to consult and take advice from community business leaders, including the Business Council of Manitoba and others, and it will encompass other growth factors such as immigration. On that front, former federal Liberal cabinet minister, the Hon. Lloyd Axworthy, has been tapped to take on a role in developing better immigration policies. “Lloyd has a lot of experience in that area,” said Heather. She sees the need to reach out to the best and most successful leaders to help make our province stronger.

The premier has an ambitious schedule when the Legislature reconvenes on March 1. In addition to growth, she is concerned about families and, as mentioned, about the backlog in health. She is also focused on reconciliation with our Indigenous population. Last week, she and a group of ministers headed north to attend the Trapper’s Festival at The Pas. “It was bitterly cold, but sunny.” She laughs, “The speeches got shorter and shorter as we went along.”

This was an important signal that the Premier recognizes the imperatives of the north and its developing economy, both for the resident population as well as for the future of Manitoba as a whole. She understands some of the everyday living challenges and is committed to putting pressure on the Federal Government to improve housing on reserves. She saw firsthand the awful living conditions due to overcrowding when she dropped in at Cross Lake to offer her condolences to the family that lost a toddler and two teens in a fire on Valentine’s Day. (For those who wonder why the province just doesn’t “do something”, the reserves are under Federal jurisdiction, governed by the Indian Act. Residents aren’t even allowed to own their homes . . .but that is a story for another day.) Heather has already sent a letter to support the housing cause.

While all this is going on, it is also time to reset the clock on the pandemic. “It is time to get back to normal,” says Heather. “We have to learn to live with this virus.” She realizes that the transition will take time and she says that she understands if folks are a bit hesitant at first. “If you are more comfortable wearing a mask, then do so,” she says. “That’s okay.” With spring coming closer and closer, more people will be outside and that will help with the transition.

As for the federal scene, the Premier says it was the right decision for the Prime Minister to withdraw the Emergencies Act before it was through the Senate. With what is going on in Europe and all the other traumatic events of the current period, it is also time to get back to civil dialogue between parties at all levels of government. 

In Manitoba, Premier Heather Stefanson is setting the example.

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