Departing premier Heather Stefanson apologizes for ‘hurting Manitobans’ with landfill-search ads | CBC News

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Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson is apologizing for election ads promoting her decision to not search a landfill north of Winnipeg for the remains of First Nations women, and says she was “a little uncomfortable” with the combative tone of her party’s unsuccessful re-election campaign.

During a conversation she described as her final interview in the premier’s office before she cedes that space to NDP Leader Wab Kinew on Wednesday, Stefanson said her party’s “Stand Firm” billboards and newspaper ads “hurt Manitobans,” but she still insists they were intended to clarify the PC position on a search for two women police believe are the victims of an alleged serial killer.

“There were some unintended consequences where we hurt some people. You know I apologize for that because it was not intended to hurt anyone,” the outgoing premier said Friday. The ads appeared during the final 10 days of Manitoba’s election campaign, which culminated with the PCs losing power to the NDP on Oct. 3.

“I’m the leader of the party. I take responsibility for the campaign,” Stefanson said.

“We were simply getting a message out about a certain issue and how difficult it was to make that decision, and those are the difficult decisions that, you know, the new premier-designate will need to make as well.”

The PC landfill ads were condemned during the campaign by the families and supporters of missing women Marcedes Myran and Morgan Harris. Winnipeg police believe the women are the victims of an alleged serial killer and that their remains lie below the surface of the Prairie Green Landfill, in the Rural Municipality of Rosser, north of Winnipeg.

The ads were also denounced following the election by PC president Brent Pooles, defeated PC incumbent candidate Rochelle Squires and former Conservative MP Candice Bergen, who served as campaign co-chair for the PCs.

Bergen said she had advised against the landfill ads but was ignored by other members of the campaign team. Stefanson suggested she had no knowledge of this dissent.

“I wasn’t at every meeting,” the outgoing premier said. “I was really busy. They kept me very busy doing various things.”

WATCH | Heather Stefanson reflects on the tone of the PC campaign:

Heather Stefanson reflects on the tone of the PC campaign

Featured VideoThe outgoing premier says she didn’t intend to hurt anyone with a campaign ad promoting her decision not to search the Prairie Green landfill for the remains of First Nations women.

Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said Stefanson’s remarks do not rise to the level of a fulsome apology.

“She didn’t say, ‘You know, that was a bad mistake. If I had known about it, I would have vetoed it when it was proposed’,” Thomas said Sunday in an interview.

“To say that she wasn’t at all meetings gives her some sort of an out, for not addressing that, but I mean, she made the remarks so many times.”

Families deserve apology: Chief

Kyra Wilson, chief of Long Plain First Nation — the home community for both Harris and Myran — said if Stefanson is sincere, she ought to apologize directly to the families of the missing women.

“The families who have their loved ones in a landfill deserve the apology,” Wilson said Sunday in an interview. “The campaign itself was very hurtful to many people and it’s unfortunate that’s the approach they took.”

Stefanson said she won’t discuss what transpired within the PC campaign, which both she and campaign manager Marni Larkin have described as a success because the party fared better than polls suggested it would a year prior to the election.

“We will have our discussions internally about what took place,” Stefanson said. “I’m certainly not going to have those discussions in the media.”

An aerial photo shows waste at a landfill surrounded by farm fields.
An aerial photo of the Prairie Green landfill, in the rural municipality of Rosser north of Winnipeg. Police believe the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran lie below the surface. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Following the campaign, Bergen also said the PCs erred in trying to make Stefanson appear angry on the campaign trail, and said voters saw through the characterization.

Stefanson said she had to take that tone during the campaign.

“There were times where it was a little uncomfortable. I’m not a combative person and I think that’s what you’re talking about and so I think sometimes we had to take a different tone. We were fighting for Manitobans and we are fighting for Manitobans,” she said.

“There’s no question, but I think I take a conciliatory approach to things. I try and work with others and sometimes I would say that, you know, that didn’t come across that way in the campaign.”

Political shift questioned by some

After the campaign, Squires and Pooles also raised concerns about the Progressive Conservative Party shifting further to the right during the campaign.

Squires, who has since left the PCs, said the 2023 campaign did not resemble the party she represented for seven-and-a-half years in Winnipeg’s Riel constituency. Pooles said he would prefer the party to remain fiscally conservative yet socially progressive and not take a hard to turn to the right.

An ad with Heather Stefanson's image and the words "stand firm: For health and safety reasons, the answer on the landfill dig just has to be no.”
A portion of a Progressive Conservative advertisement that ran in the Winnipeg Free Press two Saturdays before Manitoba’s election. (Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba)

Stefanson — who intends to remain as party leader until her successor is chosen in a year to 18 months — declined to offer an opinion about where the PCs ought to position themselves on the political spectrum.

“I think the party needs to have those discussions at a convention,” she said. “I don’t think it’s up for me to say. I think it’s the party membership.”

Stefanson said her party must focus first on completing its financial filings for Elections Manitoba and establish the rules for its forthcoming leadership race.

“When a new leader is chosen, then I look forward to having those discussions with the party membership, to see what does this look like moving forward,” she said.

Campaign’s effects in legislature

Thomas, the political studies professor, said Stefanson must now face the consequences of her campaign when she returns to the legislative chamber as Manitoba’s Opposition leader and interim PC leader.

“In addition to lame duck, she also has to answer for a campaign that even loyalists within her party found inappropriate in some respects,” he said.

“Seeing as she’s accepting that the buck stops with her, then she should expect that it will come back to her if she tries to attack the motives and tactics of the new government. So that’s a liability that she and her party will have to live with.”

Stefanson brushed off the suggestion she could serve as a distraction by remaining as party leader.

“I think we need stability in our party right now, and I think it’s the best thing for me to stay on in this role right now to see it through to a new leader,” she said.

“This is not about me. It never has been. It’s about our party making sure that we’re a strong party moving forward. And I do feel a little bit of pressure off me now.

“I feel that I can be myself and be who I am, and I’m looking forward to that, and part of this is going to be I’ve been in opposition before. I know how this works and we’re going to hold the government to account.”

Outgoing Manitoba premier apologizes

Featured VideoManitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson says landfill ads “hurt Manitobans” and she was “a little uncomfortable” with combative election campaign.

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