The race to become the next leader of Manitoba’s Progressive Conservatives is revving up with the province’s former health minister the first to throw her hat in the ring.
Heather Stefanson, who is 51, says she submitted her resignation from her cabinet position yesterday and intends to run for the leadership.
“We will work with Manitobans to move forward — to strengthen our health-care system, create jobs, improve education and advance reconciliation and economic opportunity for Indigenous people,” Stefanson said Wednesday.
Audrey Gordon has been appointed the new minister of health, on top of her portfolio as minister of mental health, wellness and recovery.
Premier Brian Pallister announced last week he would not be leading the Tories in the next election, which is scheduled for 2023.
He has not said how long he will stay on as premier or as a member of the legislature, and dates for a leadership contest have not been announced.
Stefanson announced her intentions with the support of 24 of the 36 Progressive Conservative legislative members.
She was flanked by several high-profile PC MLAs at her announcement, including Education Minister Cliff Cullen, Justice Minister Cameron Friesen, Central Services Minister Reg Helwer, and Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler.
“This kind of support is impressive,” said Royce Koop, who teaches political studies at the University of Manitoba.
Her one significant liability is that she was a minister in Pallister’s government, Koop added, so she will need to create some distance between herself and the premier.
In her bid for the Tories top spot, Stefanson committed to abandoning controversial education legislation that was significant to Pallister’s legacy.
“Bill 64 is done,” Stefanson said about the plan to reform the education system.
“Instead, a Progressive Conservative government under my leadership will listen to parents and make sure we have an education system that prepares our children to succeed in everything they do.”
Experts have said there are no present front-runners but Stefanson, as well as Families Minister Rochelle Squires and Conservative member of Parliament Candice Bergen, have been touted as possible candidates.
Finance Minister Scott Fielding has also said he is seriously considering a run for the job.
Stefanson has been the legislature member for the south Winnipeg riding of Tuxedo since 2000. Previously, she served as the minister of justice and families.
She was also deputy premier before she took over the health file earlier this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Opposition New Democrats called for any new Tory leader to require all members of caucus to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
It follows a directive from Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government this week that all of its members be vaccinated or face ejection from caucus.
“Manitobans expect their elected officials to lead by example,” said NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine.
The PC party’s executive council has said it will be meeting to determine leadership contest rules. Its constitution states the next leader is to be chosen by all party members on a one-member, one-vote basis.
Pallister ran unopposed for leader in 2012 and guided the Tories to the largest majority government in a century four years later. He had been hinting about retirement for more than a year.
His popularity dropped sharply as Manitoba dealt with the pandemic and pressure for his exit increased after he came under fire for comments he made about Canadian history.
Pallister later apologized for saying that people who came to Canada before and after it became a country did not come to destroy but to build.
–With files from Steve Lambert and Shane Gibson