Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative caucus has chosen Wayne Ewasko, a former cabinet minister serving his fourth term in the legislature, to be interim leader as the party tries to rebuild from last October’s election loss.
Ewasko said he hopes to build back trust both within the party, which faced an acrimonious leadership race in 2021, and with the general public, which voted the Tories out Oct. 3 after seven years in power.
“We lost the election. I strongly feel that the NDP didn’t actually win it. We lost it,” Ewasko told reporters Thursday.
Ewasko replaces Heather Stefanson, who announced her plan to resign as Tory leader on election night and officially left Monday. Ewasko is to serve until the Tories hold a leadership convention, expected in the fall, and did not rule out running for the more-permanent position Thursday.
The former Tory government saw its popular support drop sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic as hospitals struggled to keep up with the rising number of cases. The Tories also faced public anger over a plan to eliminate most elected school boards and eventually backed off the idea.
Premier Brian Pallister resigned in 2021, and Stefanson won the ensuing leadership contest by a narrow margin. Her opponent, Shelly Glover, alleged voting irregularities helped Stefanson win, but a judge rejected Glover’s court challenge.
Stefanson failed to boost Tory support. She also faced sharp criticism during last year’s election campaign when the Tories ran advertisements that promoted their decision not to search a landfill for the remains of two Indigenous women because of safety concerns.
Ewasko was asked Thursday whether part of the trust-rebuilding would centre on issues such as the Tories’ attempted education reforms and Stefanson’s landfill ads.
“You’ve mentioned a couple of them. But definitely there’s a few that are out there that myself and the team are going to definitely be working towards, again, rebuilding that trust, sort of hitting that reset button a little bit on a few topics.”
While the election was close in terms of the popular vote across the province — 45.5 per cent for the NDP to the Tories’ 42 per cent — the Tories fared poorly in Winnipeg, where there are the most legislature seats. They emerged with three of the city’s 32 seats.
The NDP secured a solid majority with 34 seats to the Tories’ 22. The Liberals were reduced to one seat.
A political analyst said Ewasko’s first job is to get the caucus prepared for the spring legislature sitting in March.
“His immediate task is to ensure that the caucus is unified and focused so that the party can perform effectively in challenging and holding the government accountable, especially during the spring (sitting),” said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
“That task becomes more difficult because there may be caucus members with personal leadership aspirations and/or there may be alignments within caucus into different leadership camps.”
The fact Ewasko is leaving the door open to a possible leadership run is unusual, Thomas added, because whatever decisions he makes could be interpreted by some as attempts to give himself an edge in the leadership race.
“Usually an interim leader rules out the possibility of going for the job permanently, or caucus insists he or she not become a leadership contestant.”
Ewasko is a former teacher who was first elected to the legislature in 2011. He represents the Lac Du Bonnet constituency northeast of Winnipeg.
He served as minister of advanced education, skills and immigration, briefly, under Pallister, then as minister of education and early childhood learning under Stefanson.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2024.
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