Premier Kelvin Goertzen, who has urged Manitobans to get COVID-19 vaccinations, refused to weigh in on the possibility his upcoming replacement could be someone who opposes mandatory vaccination policies.
The Progressive Conservative Party announced in a news release Thursday morning that former MP Shelly Glover and MLA Heather Stefanson are the two official candidates to become the next leader and, by default, Manitoba’s next premier.
Glover has previously said while she is vaccinated, she does not support mandatory vaccination policies.
Stefanson, however, has stated her support of the current provincial health orders requiring vaccinations or regular testing and has pledged to keep them in place.
Former Progressive Conservative party official Ken Lee had also said he planned to enter the leadership race but was not named among the official candidates.
Lee had also said he is also against vaccine requirements, calling them an erosion of freedoms.
Goertzen stepped into the role of premier for a two-month term following Brian Pallister’s resignation. The winner of the leadership contest will be decided Oct. 30.
WATCH | Goertzen on pushback against vaccine rules:
At a Thursday morning news conference prior to the party’s leadership race announcement, he lauded Manitoba’s current public health orders for putting the province “in a good place” compared to the surging caseloads in neighbouring provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The measures other provinces are now adopting are things Manitoba instituted weeks ago, he said.
“So I think we’ve been proactive … but I also know that things can change day to day.”
‘I will stay out of the leadership race’
Asked how he would feel about being replaced by someone who might undo some of the province’s vaccination initiatives, or whether party members would support someone who opposes vaccination mandates, Goertzen wouldn’t comment, saying he intends to stay out of the leadership race.
“That is well down the hypothetical rabbit hole,” he said. “I made a determination to stay out of the leadership race, so I will stay out of the leadership race.”
Goertzen stated early on he had no desire to take over the leadership permanently, which is partly why the party chose him to fill the gap.
He said Thursday he is disappointed in the divide in society right now when it comes to COVID-19 and vaccinations but said his decisions are made based on the best evidence at hand.
“I don’t want people to think it is a forced choice. I want people to know it’s the right choice,” he said.
“The next leader of the party, I hope, would look through that same lens and do the same thing.”
The challenges now facing Saskatchewan and Alberta could exist in Manitoba again, which is why this province made masks mandatory for indoor public places and required immunization or regular testing for everyone working in certain jobs with vulnerable populations — including workers in schools, Goertzen said.
Manitobans must also be fully vaccinated in order to get into many businesses or venues for entertainment.
“All of these things had some degree of controversy around them but now we see that other provinces who are well into their fourth wave are doing the things that Manitoba did,” he said.
“There’s no perfect answer, I think, to any of these things but I think that that proactive measure puts us in the best place possible.
“I’m committed to doing the best job that I can and make the best decisions that I believe I can make. There are difficult choices that are being made and clearly people have very different views.”
Council of the Federation cancelled
The legislature will resume sitting on Oct. 6 and five controversial bills, including Bill 64 — the proposed school reform legislation — will be formally withdrawn on that day, Goertzen announced Thursday.
“It requires unanimous consent [and] I’m expecting we’ll get unanimous consent” to withdraw them, Goertzen said.
One thing that won’t happen in Manitoba is the meeting of the Council of the Federation, a congress of the premiers of each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories that usually meets twice annually.
The in-person gathering was scheduled to take place Oct. 5-7 in Winnipeg.
Before resigning, Pallister had been appointed chair of the council for the next year and had said he planned to use the meeting to lobby for more health-care transfers from the federal government.
The decision to cancel was made partly because of the rising tide of COVID’s fourth wave in parts of the country, but also because of the upheaval in Manitoba’s leadership, Goertzen said.
“It’s not really fair, I think, for the Council of Federation to have three chairs in about four months,” he said.
Goertzen asked British Columbia Premier John Horgan to assume the role of chair and host a virtual meeting. Manitoba will resume as chair next year.
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