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Former cabinet ministers say PCs tried to push through silica sand mine after election loss

Two former progressive conservative cabinet ministers say their own government tried to push through a controversial silica sand mining project just days before the new NDP government was officially sworn in.

In the aftermath of the provincial election, former PC cabinet minister Kevin Klein says he got a phone call on Oct. 12 from his colleague Jeff Wharton – then minister of economic development, investment and trade.

Klein, who was the minister of environment and climate at the time, said Wharton asked him to sign a directive which would allow a license to be approved for Sio Silica.

“I immediately said no, I was not going to do that. In fact, I was quite disappointed and angry that I would even be asked to do something like that,” Klein told CTV News.

The project has caused much debate in the province.

Alberta-based Sio Silica wants to set up a mining operation in southeastern Manitoba. The process would extract 1.36 million tonnes of silica sand in an area near Vivian by drilling wells.

A report from the Clean Environment Commission that was released this summer outlined uncertainties about the project’s impact on water quality in the region. This prompted protests from area residents who feared it could affect their drinking water.

However, before the project can proceed, it needs approval from the province for an environmental license.

It is something Klein said he was not prepared to give.

“It was wrong. We had lost government. It was clear the people of Manitoba made another decision. And we were in what was called caretaker mode,” he said. “Even if we weren’t, I wasn’t prepared to sign off on that license. I gave the people of Manitoba my word and said the decision will be finalized by experts.”

Klein said he called Heather Stefanson, the leader of the PC party, and told her about his conversation with Wharton.

“I told her I wasn’t going to sign it, she agreed that we shouldn’t sign it, that I was doing the right thing,” he said.

The PC Caucus would not confirm that Stefanson was aware of the situation. A spokesperson for Stefanson told CTV News the former premier respected due process in the transition phase.

Klein was not the only cabinet minister who got a call to give the project a green light.

Former PC minister Rochelle Squires said Wharton reached out to her as well, asking the same thing.

“Obviously, it was not an appropriate request and the approvals were not given,” Squires told CTV News.

Both Squires and Klein said the push to approve the project contravenes Manitoba’s caretaker convention. It says a government must refrain from making major decisions during an election – a time when they can’t be held accountable in the legislature.

“I know that it was a large decision, it was a very complex decision, and certainly not one that should be made during caretaker period of time,” Squires said.

In a statement from CTV News, Wharton, who is the current MLA for Red River North, said he had a mandate to work with colleagues across government to ‘land sound business opportunities.’

“Sio Silica has undergone extensive environmental review and consultations since 2020,” he said. “No licensing decision was granted during the transition by me, my former colleagues, or the former premier.”

He said the decision for the Sio Silica project remains with the NDP government.

“Investors are eager to bring critical minerals and manufacturing projects to Manitoba,” Wharton said. “But they won’t sit on the sidelines forever waiting for the new government to make decisions.”

But Manitoba’s Premier Wab Kinew says his government will take their time.

“The fact the Stefanson government tried to ram this through after they lost the election has caused us to look at it again very carefully,” a statement from the premier reads.

“We have decided to take the time to make sure the environmental, business case and consultation assessments are done right.”

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