COVID-19 ‘heaviest weight’ on Winnipeg mayor as pandemic’s death toll mounts

A sombre Brian Bowman sees 2020 as a year defined by one thing — and it isn’t multi-year budgets or road repair.

It’s the COVID-19 pandemic that hangs over Winnipeg’s mayor, as the number of city residents who have died from the disease has passed 400, and more than 14,000 have been infected.

“Those numbers are growing each day. So that’s been for sure the heaviest weight on me,” Bowman told CBC News in a year-end interview several days before Christmas. 

As he reflects on what the city has done to cope with the pandemic, Bowman says he regrets not making one decision sooner.

“We brought in mandatory masks at city facilities and Transit buses in August. If I could go back, I would have pushed to have that earlier,” he said. “I think it may have had a positive impact to motivate all of us to do more and to do it sooner.”

The pandemic, he says, is the greatest crisis he’s lived through.

“Most of us will get through this pandemic and it will be something we’ll talk with our kids and our grandkids about.

“But there is a lot of people who are going to have some empty chairs around the table next Christmas [and] in the holidays to come.”

‘Unprecedented power grab’ by province

In news conferences over the past nine months, Bowman has cautiously expressed frustration with communication between the city and the provincial government on health orders, and guidance on how to interpret or enact them.

The relationship hasn’t been helped by the almost utter lack of contact between Bowman and Premier Brian Pallister. The pair last spoke directly in April — “not for a lack of trying on my end,” Bowman says.

“We have [tried] and will continue to try to facilitate those direct interactions between the two of us,” he said, adding he understands the current strain on the premier.

“I have no doubt this has been a very difficult year for him and for his ministers. I have always appreciated the opportunity and I think our province has benefited when we are able to connect personally and directly.”

Manitoba’s two most high-profile political leaders haven’t spoken in more than eight months during one of the most significant crises in generations, according to the mayor. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

In spite of that diplomatic assessment, Bowman is blunt on the province’s impending Bill 48.

The legislation — The Planning Amendment and City of Winnipeg Charter Amendment Act — would make dramatic changes to the way land-use decisions are made in municipalities such as Winnipeg and the surrounding capital region.

“It’s an unprecedented power grab, there’s no doubt … and there have been concerns that municipalities all over Manitoba have been voicing,” Bowman said with a slight edge to his voice.

He plans to speak at a provincial committee hearing on the legislation in the new year.

“I was hoping that we’d see a lot less red tape, a lot less bureaucracy, in this specific bill,” the mayor said. “There’s a tremendous amount of power that will be placed in unelected, unaccountable decision makers that will kind of increase that extra layer of red tape.” 

Not a ‘lame duck’ term

After six years as mayor, Bowman told reporters in October he would not seek a third term.

He doesn’t like the idea of being a lame duck, and he barely bristles when asked if the announcement will hamper his ability to lead until a 2022 election.

“When I said that I think Manitoba has too many career politicians and I don’t want to be one of them, I really meant it,” Bowman said. 

He said he’ll continue to expand the city’s role in coping with addictions, mental health and homelessness issues.

And while he’s a little coy on the subject, he also appears ready to take a second stab at introducing a growth fee on new developments.

Growth fee may be planted again in 2021

Efforts to set a development fee on new housing suffered a significant setback in 2020, after a court ruled the city’s approach to imposing its fee was offside.

Bowman acknowledges there was a stumble in the first attempt to bring in the impact fee, but believes it’s necessary to help build the city’s infrastructure as it expands.

“Every neighbouring municipality, and cities across Canada, have a form of growth fee,” he says.

He also notes the court decision affirmed the city has the right to implement a fee on growth, “so there is a path forward,” he says.

A second attempt will involve substantial input from developers.

“We’re going to continue to have dialogue in the new year. And I’ll just say stay tuned.”

Where to next?

Speculation about Bowman’s future predates his announcement he would not run again.

Rumours abounded among political observers and those inside the business community that Bowman either had his sights set on provincial or federal politics, or was in line for a prestigious posting courtesy of the Trudeau Liberal government.

In the summer, CBC News asked Bowman if he had been contacted by the Prime Minister’s Office or another arm of the federal government for a job elsewhere. He vehemently denied any such contact.

During his year-end interview, the mayor reiterated his lack of interest in running for any other position. 

“I don’t have aspirations to run provincially or federally. And I think I’m in the best political office in the country here,” Bowman said.

Asked where he might land, he mused about returning to his law career, but left the door open to other directions.

“I’ll keep you posted,” he said. “But right now my focus is on COVID and seeing this community through this storm.”

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