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Editorial: Significance of first female premier depends on next election

Heather Stefanson’s swearing in to Manitoba's top elected position a historic occasion but not without a little controversy.
premier-heather-stefanson-2021
Heather Stefanson was sworn Nov. 2 in as Manitoba;'s 24th – and fire female – premier.

Regardless of how she got there, the ascension of Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson to the top elected office in Manitoba when she gets sworn in as the province’s next premier, which was scheduled to take place Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after this edition of the newspaper went to the press, is undoubtedly a significant occasion.

Never before has a woman served as this province’s premier and Stefanson’s name will be recorded and repeated as the keystone province’s first female first minister.

That said, there are a couple of asterisks to place beside her name in the history books.

First of all, she got the position by being elected party leader after the last person to be elected as premier by Manitobans at large, his tallness Brian Pallister, resigned the position, which was then temporarily filled by Kelvin Goertzen, who announced on Monday that he had submitted his resignation as premier to the lieutenant-governor, effective Tuesday. A lot of female firsts in Canadian politics, such as the first female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and at least one provincial premier, have made it to the highest office in this manner. In B.C., decades passed between the first woman – Rita Johnson – becoming premier in the wake of former premier Bill VanderZalm resigning as premier and Social Credit party leader in 1991 and Christy Clark, who became premier as a result of a resignation in 2011, leading her party to an election win in 2013. At the federal level, Campbell’s short time as prime minister, resulting from Brian Mulroney’s resignation, remains the only four-and-a-bit months in this country’s political history in which a woman was at the top of the heap. This doesn’t make Stefanson becoming premier less historic or in any way illegitimate, it’s just an acknowledgement that the voters of Manitoba as a whole haven’t yet chosen a woman as their leader at the polls.

Secondly, once some other prospective candidates were deemed unqualified to put their names forth as Progressive Conservative party leader following Pallister’s resignation, the only candidate running against Stefanson was Shelly Glover, a former federal cabinet member. That Manitoba was going to have a female premier was, in essence, set in stone weeks ago.

The last thing to note about Stefanson’s history-making election is that, according to the Glover campaign, it resulted from an unfair partly election. The premier-designate’s opponent says the failure of the party to deliver mail-in ballots to  more than 1,000 party members in time for them to vote may have cost her the chance to be premier. She had plans to file a legal challenge and had even requested that Stefanson’s swearing-in be held off on account of this, in Glover’s opinion at least, uncertainty about the result. What is definitely undeniable is that the PCs split nearly down the middle when it comes to the two candidates. Out of nearly 16,500 votes cast by party members, Stefanson received only 363 more than Glover, a margin of just over two per cent. It only takes on more vote to be the winner, of course, but if this indicates a serious divide within the PC party, it could affect Stefanson’s chance of becoming the first woman elected as premier of Manitoba in a general election a year or two down the line. Given anger about health care decisions, proposed and then scrapped education reform, how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled and fractious relations between Pallister and Indigenous Manitobans, party loyalists who decide to stay home rather than votes when the next general election comes around could be one battle too many for the PCs to win as they seeks a third straight majority government.