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Former Manitoba premier denies accusation she tried to push mine approval

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson says she did not try to push through approval of a silica sand mine in the days following her election loss last Oct. 3

Stefanson also says she has no financial interest in the mine and no conflict of interest in the project, which remains a proposal.

The governing New Democrats have filed complaints with the provincial ethics commissioner against Stefanson and former Tory economic development minister Jeff Wharton.

They allege the two tried to rush approval of the Sio Silica mining project after the Tories lost the election and before the NDP were sworn in.

Stefanson says her government presented information on the project to the incoming NDP government, as all governments do on major files during the transition period.

But she says there was no attempt to get the project, which is still being reviewed, approved early.

“We brought it to the attention of (NDP Leader Wab Kinew) and the NDP,” Stefanson told reporters Saturday.

“They said they weren’t interested at the time in moving forward. End of story.”

The accusations started within Tory ranks. Two former cabinet ministers — Rochelle Squires and Kevin Klein — have said they were called ,separately by Wharton days after the election loss. They say Wharton asked them to approve the mining project before the new NDP government could be sworn in on Oct. 18.

Klein and Squires both say they refused.

Wharton has denied the accusation, and has said he was simply gathering information about the mining project to pass on to the incoming government.

Squires, in an opinion piece published in the Winnipeg Free Press, also said Wharton told her Stefanson wanted the project to proceed but couldn’t give the order herself because she was in a potential conflict of interest.

Wharton has denied that accusation as well. Stefanson said Saturday the accusation is not true.

“We did not issue the licence and I have no conflict of interest.”

Stefanson said she did discuss the mine with Klein, who was environment minister, and told him the project was not moving forward.

The New Democrats allege any attempt to push through the mining project after the election loss would violate a long-standing constitutional principle known as the caretaker convention, which forbids outgoing governments from making most major decisions during the transition period.

The ethics commissioner is being asked to investigate under the province’s conflict-of-interest act, which forbids legislature members from exercising “an official power, duty or function that provides an opportunity to further their private interests or those of their family or to improperly further another person’s private interests.”

There are exceptions, however, such as activities normally carried out on behalf of constituents.

The Sio Silica project would create thousands of wells over 24 years across a large swath of southeastern Manitoba, although only an initial phase is being reviewed for approval now.

Manitoba’s environmental regulator, the Clean Environment Commission, recommended against any decision on the mining project in June, pending further study of the project’s impacts.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2024

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press

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