Over seven weeks of campaigning that began with an early-August pledge to fight the “NDP-Liberal carbon tax” and ended with late-September promises to “stand firm” against a landfill search for the remains of murdered Indigenous women, Heather Stefanson adopted the persona of an angry, hard-right populist.
To anyone who has observed Manitoba’s departing Progressive Conservative leader since she entered politics 23 years ago, the appearance of this new political character was nothing short of jarring.
It was especially confusing, considering the Tuxedo MLA’s promises in the wake of her selection as party leader in 2021 to be more open, empathetic and conciliatory than Brian Pallister, her famously prickly predecessor as Manitoba premier and PC leader.
It was even more bewildering on election night, when the real Heather Stefanson — a gregarious woman with a beaming smile, beloved by friends and trusted by caucus colleagues — re-emerged to issue a graceful concession speech befitting of a leader in a province with a political culture that places a high value on moderation.
“The historic nature of [Wab] Kinew’s victory must be acknowledged here this evening,” she said after conceding defeat to the NDP leader, who will become the first First Nations premier of a Canadian province later this month.
“Wab, I hope your win here tonight inspires a generation of Indigenous youth to get involved in the democratic process, not just here in Manitoba, but right across the country.”
That message was so graceful and laden with humility, all of Stefanson’s allies and opponents alike ought to be wondering right now how much closer the 2023 race would have been had the PC leader presented her authentic self to the public throughout the provincial election campaign.
Several are openly questioning the PC campaign decision of forcing Stefanson to hide her real self behind a modified Maxime Bernier mask and campaign just as combatively from Aug. 11 to Oct. 2.
“I think what voters can see right through is when you’re not being who you really are,” said PC campaign co-chair Candice Bergen, a former Conservative MP who played what she describes as a mostly honorary role in the party’s re-election effort.
“That includes looking like you’re tough and angry when you’re actually kind and caring. That doesn’t work either, and I think that we need to learn those lessons even from this past election that we’ve just gone through.
“We need to allow our leaders to be authentic and be truly who they are.”
The decision to make an affluent politician appear aggrieved and angry was not the only head-scratcher in the PC campaign.
Party has ‘identity crisis,’ says defeated incumbent
The hard-right rhetorical pivot was even stranger in moderate Manitoba, even before the campaign culminated in a vaguely defined “parental-rights” promise, an attack ad about NDP candidates so aggressive that the Winnipeg Free Press demanded an edit, and the decision to seek votes on the basis a PC government would not move earth to search for human remains.
“I think that the PC Party has an identity crisis that it needs to resolve,” said defeated PC cabinet member Rochelle Squires, a two-term incumbent who lost her Riel seat on election night and announced she is leaving the party and politics altogether the following day.
“I won’t be offering any feedback or thoughts on how the party needs to move forward. As somebody who’s exiting politics and somebody who had the immense privilege of serving under this banner and in this government, it was very much a different campaign from the government that I’d served in for seven and a half years.
“It was such a diversion — a pivot, if you will — from the things that we had been doing in government, that it really confused myself and many Manitobans.”
Squires said the PC attack ads were so “beyond the pale,” she refused to speak at a campaign announcement promising to provide more funding to the victims of domestic and sexual violence.
“I was very much looking forward to making an announcement on the campaign trail that would further underline our commitment to supporting those individuals,” said Squires, a sexual assault survivor.
“After the negative attacks had gone out, I had declined and withdrawn my willingness to participate in that announcement.”
Bergen, the campaign co-chair, said she opposed the ads but was unable to steer the PC campaign away from them.
“There was some disagreement around the campaign table about the communications approach for the campaign, specifically around searching the landfill and around Indigenous women,” Bergen said.
“Unfortunately, I would say, voices that encouraged sensitivity and compassion were largely ignored.”
Campaign manager dismisses concerns
Marni Larkin, the PC campaign manager, dismissed concerns the ads and the campaign overall were too aggressive for more progressive voters within the Progressive Conservative party.
“Manitobans told us what they wanted to hear and we delivered on that,” Larkin said on election night. “We have a leader that is full of compassion and strength and sometimes has to make very difficult decisions for all Manitobans and she showed she can do that and stay strong.”
Ultimately, the 2023 PC campaign proved to be far more competitive than any political observer would have expected two years ago, when Stefanson took over from Pallister, said Kelvin Goertzen, the longtime PC MLA for Steinbach.
“We were a government that was going for a third term in Manitoba, which historically is always very difficult,” Goertzen said Wednesday in an interview.
“Somebody once used an analogy with me that being in government is like taking a hike. Every few steps you bend down, you pick up a rock and you put it in your backpack, and it just gets heavier and heavier and heavier because there’s an accumulation of decisions that you’re carrying.”
Nonetheless, Goertzen said the very collegial Heather Stefanson who issued her concession speech on Tuesday was completely consistent with the Tuxedo MLA he’s known for more than 20 years.
“I think what often happens when a leader is stepping down it’s probably the time when they are, in some ways, the least scripted, when they’re speaking most from the heart and when, of course, it’s most personal,” he said. “So then people often connect with that and they go, ‘Oh, I wish I would have seen more of that.'”
In the end, Manitobans won’t see that much more of Stefanson as party leader. Whether she chooses to differentiate herself from the character she played in this campaign is one of the last executive decisions she will have to make.