The first 90 days . . . and next steps

Dorothy Dobbie

“People are suffering from health and COVID-19 fatigue,” says Premier Heather Stefanson. “They are worried about surgical and diagnostic services.” She shares their concerns. “Now more than ever, we need to stay in touch with Manitobans and take a more collaborative approach to problem solving. We have to keep our heads about us, though, and stay on a steady path.”

Talking to Premier Heather Stefanson is like taking a breath of fresh air. She is so lucid and clear in what she has to say. I am sure this completely flummoxes the traditional media who are used to a bunch of word salad coming from most politicians. I suspect that they keep looking for hidden messages because that is what they are accustomed to deciphering in most political speech. Heather just says exactly what she means and says it without embellishment.

I asked her today about her first 90 days. Rather than focus on herself, she immediately turned to what Manitobans are dealing with – how they want COVID-19 to be over and to get on with their lives, how the transition itself is worrisome to many. 

She has been thinking deeply about this and says that we need to find innovative ways to deal with the health challenges, whether through using public or private services to get the backlog cleaned up. The Council of the Federation is meeting again soon, and she says that this will be a top-of-mind consideration to address with the federal government. “It is difficult for any single province to go ahead on their own,” she pointed out. 

““We need a solid commitment by the federal government to provide a meaningful increase to the Canada Health Transfer base budget of health care funding to the provinces and territories.”

 The federal proportion of funding has eroded over the years from its original 50 per cent to 23.5 per cent in 2019, with provinces picking up the rest. Clearly, this is a critical issue for the way going forward and one that preoccupies the Council. 

“We either have to get an agreement on new funding or find new ways to deal with this,” the premier says. It is a major challenge but one that she sees clearly as a top priority.

She becomes very animated when talking about the overall future of the province and how to overcome the corporate malaise that has held us back for many years.

“We have to come back together as a province.” Heather’s family has been part of the Manitoba story since the late 1800s. She remembers our once spirit of optimism and limitless potential. To forege ahead, the Premier believes government must be sincerely consultative, taking a more collaborative approach going forward. “We need to listen,” she emphasizes, making it clear that listening is hearing all the nuances and paying attention to them rather than brushing them off.

It is the same in her government. “We need to encourage MLAs to speak for their constituents. If we don’t, we get nowhere,” she says, making it clear that she expects her team to take a pro-active, let’s-fix-it approach. “We need to change the culture from being top heavy with all the power vested in the prime minster or the premiers as opposed to being part of a responsible team.” As caucus learns to trust this more, she believes a lot of the negative pressure on government will disappear.

We move on to economic recovery. The Premier lights up with positive energy and declares once again that “We are open for business!” She has already met with some of the mining companies and is firmly committed to moving the dial forward on development in the North. This is very important to our first nations and the Metis, she says. 

On the wider economic front stay tuned for some very exciting news about the economic development structure over the next few weeks. She intends to maintain a key role in the portfolio so that her vision and business experience can guide our road to recovery.

We will discuss this more in the March issue of Lifestyles. 

The Premier has also noted concerns about the erosion of the work force in our province, both skilled and unskilled, and she has some forward thinking plans about immigration that will be rolled out soon.

As we came to the end of our discussion, I asked her if she was exhausted, and she laughed. “It’s been up and down,” she answered. “But that’s just life! Lots of people are facing the COVID-19 malaise.”

She pauses then adds in her optimistic, upbeat way, “I get very excited about the future.”