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Manitoba premier expected to launch campaign Tuesday for Oct. 3 election

WINNIPEG — Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson is expected to call an election Tuesday in a bid for a third consecutive Progressive Conservative majority. 

Opinion polls suggest it will be an uphill battle. 

The governing Tories saw their poll numbers drop sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic as some patients had to be flown to other provinces due to a lack of beds. They also faced widespread public criticism over a plan to eliminate elected school boards under Stefanson’s predecessor, Brian Pallister.

Stefanson, who took over after Pallister’s retirement two years ago, immediately killed that plan. She also promised a more conciliatory approach than her predecessor and loosened the government purse strings after years of financial restraint.

One political analyst said Stefanson’s approach has worked to some extent.

“She is a less divisive leader and recent initiatives … have defused to some extent the anger that was attached to the PC government,” Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said in an interview.

“It’s not that people have completely forgotten, just that the intensity of the anger has subsided somewhat.”

Recent opinion polls suggest the NDP lead in popularity has narrowed. However, the most recent quarterly survey by Probe Research Inc. suggested the NDP held a 12-point lead in Winnipeg. The city is home to 32 of the 57 legislature seats and its suburban neighbourhoods are normally where elections are won and lost.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew will lead the Opposition party into an election for a second time and would become the province’s first First Nations premier if he wins. The NDP has focused much of its messaging on health care, and has also spent time on pocketbook issues such as utility bills and electric vehicle subsidies.

Kinew has managed to carve out a moderate platform so far, Thomas said, in part by making promises that include a pledge to not defund police agencies.

“Kinew, I think, has done what he needed to do … to appeal to the moderate middle of the voting population in Manitoba,” Thomas said.

Still, Thomas said, the election looks to be a much closer contest now than it did a year ago.

The Tories have accused Kinew of making spending promises that would require tax hikes and add to the province’s fiscal troubles. With the exception of a razor-thin $5-million surplus in 2019, Manitoba has been running deficits every year since 2009.

The Liberals will also be campaigning for a second consecutive time under their leader, Dougald Lamont. The Liberals have three legislature seats and have not seen any improvement in polling numbers in years.

While the pandemic strain on hospitals has subsided, other issues have come to the fore in recent months.

Health-care staffing shortages remain while the government has promised better recruitment and retention. Crime rates have risen.

And an ongoing protest camp downtown demanding a landfill search for the remains of Indigenous women has captured national attention. 

Police believe the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran were taken to the privately run Prairie Green Landfill north of Winnipeg last year. 

A man has been charged in those deaths as well as those of two others — Rebecca Contois, whose partial remains were found in a different landfill, and an unidentified woman Indigenous leaders are calling Mashkoda Bizhiki’ikwe or Buffalo Woman, whose remains have not been found.

Stefanson rejected the idea of searching the Prairie Green Landfill after a feasibility study said a search was possible, although it would have no guarantee of success and searchers would need protection from toxic material. She also said it could jeopardize the judicial process.

The New Democrats and Liberals have promised to ensure a search is conducted. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs called last month for Stefanson’s resignation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2023. 

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press