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Former Manitoba premier Heather Stefanson leaving politics after 23 years

WINNIPEG — Former Manitoba premier Heather Stefanson, the first woman to have held the province’s top office, is resigning her legislature seat, ending a 23-year career in politics.

Stefanson was first elected as a legislature member in November 2000. She became leader of the Progressive Conservatives and Manitoba’s first female premier in 2021.

“Serving as (legislature member), minister and the first woman premier has been the honour of a lifetime,” Stefanson, 53, said in the chamber Thursday.

“These roles allowed me to serve Manitobans and help pave the way for future generations of women in public service.”

Stefanson was chosen by her fellow Tories to replace former premier Brian Pallister. The government was low in opinion polls, partly due to its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and did not rebound before last October’s election, which saw the NDP sweep to power.

Dealing with the pandemic and its effects on health care, the economy and the province’s finances was a challenge, she recalled Thursday. She said she hopes to be remembered for being part of the response.

“I think we were able to come through that and turn things around, and so I’m proud of the people I’ve worked with in order to make those things happen.”

Stefanson said on election night she would quit as party leader. She followed through in January after the Tories worked out new rules for the leadership race that will choose her successor next year.

Stefanson was seven years old when she got her first taste of politics. Her father ran for a seat in the legislature, finishing second to Liberal Lloyd Axworthy. She studied political science at university and later worked for Mila Mulroney, whose husband, Brian Mulroney, was prime minister at the time.

While in Ottawa, she met her future husband, Jason Stefanson, a nephew of a former Manitoba cabinet minister. They have two children.

After winning a seat in the Manitoba legislature in 2000, Stefanson spent years on the opposition benches. When the Tories won the 2016 election, she was appointed to cabinet and held a variety of senior portfolios including families, justice and health.

Stefanson was highly regarded in Tory ranks and known as someone who could work with people, a political analyst said.

“Her strengths were that she was a conciliator. She listened to people, she took advice and she was someone who operated within a team,” said Christopher Adams, adjunct professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

In cabinet, Stefanson helped with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and reduced the number of “birth alerts” that saw newborns regularly taken from mothers deemed high-risk. The vast majority of children in care in Manitoba are Indigenous.

But taking over the party helm with the province still in the throes of a pandemic and saddled with a predecessor who had angered many people was a very big challenge, Adams said.

“There were many strikes against her — a few of her own making but many not of her own making,” Adams said.

Upon becoming premier, Stefanson promised a more conciliatory tone with the federal government, Indigenous leaders and others. Her pre-election budget loosened the government’s purse strings after years of fiscal restraint.

But her tone shifted shortly before last year’s election campaign. She talked of “fighting” for Manitobans, and was more combative with Ottawa. 

She was widely criticized for taking out campaign ads that promoted her government’s decision to not search a landfill where the remains of two Indigenous women are believed to be. The ads cited safety concerns from hazardous waste.

The change of tone, Adams said, was likely a downside of Stefanson’s team approach and willingness to compromise with the views of those around her.

“She allowed people to shape the message during her campaign.”

Stefanson said Thursday she will vacate her legislature seat before the spring sitting resumes May 6.

The house is not sitting next week. 

“I do have some irons in the fire and some exciting things coming in the near future. I can’t say what those are right now,” Stefanson said.

The vacancy will require a byelection in her Tuxedo constituency in Winnipeg sometime in the next six months. One of Stefanson’s first moves as a cabinet minister was to introduce a bill that shortened the maximum time a seat can remain vacant to six months from one year.

The Tuxedo riding is historically a Tory stronghold, but the NDP finished a close second there in the last election, almost costing Stefanson her seat.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press


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