Manitoba NDP bet big on health care, rode wave of discontent with Tories on way to victory

Manitoba’s New Democratic Party rode to a resounding victory Tuesday night on the back of long-simmering frustration and anger with the province’s Progressive Conservatives — something the governing party couldn’t shake, even with a new face at the helm.

The NDP victory also signalled that despite all the noise of the campaign — from escalating PC attack ads in its waning days to a focus on divisive issues, including a vague call for parental rights in schools and a refusal to search a landfill for the remains of two First Nations homicide victims — it was the issues that mattered to voters.

And the winning party’s choice of health care as the issue to focus on seems to have been a smart one. That topic made its way into nearly all the NDP’s announcements on the campaign trail, and into premier-designate Wab Kinew’s victory speech on Tuesday night — where front-line workers were the very first people he addressed.

“To the people in health care, to the people working in the bedside today, to the people thinking of pursuing a career, to health-care workers across the country and other provinces around the world, I have a simple message to you. We need you,” Kinew said in a speech to a room filled with ecstatic supporters, as he was surrounded on stage by his wife, Dr. Lisa Monkman, and their children.

Though Kinew was relatively careful in discussing his identity as an Anishinaabe man on the campaign trail, and in addressing Indigenous issues at all, he also used the historic night to connect with young Indigenous people in the audience — perhaps suggesting a shift in approach from Manitoba’s first First Nations premier.

“I want to speak to the young neechies out there,” he said to loud cheers from the bursting crowd, who were packed shoulder-to-shoulder for most of the night.

Manitoba NDP supporters cheer upon hearing early in the night the party was elected or leading in more than 29 ridings — the number required to form a majority government — at the party’s election headquarters at the Fort Garry Hotel in downtown Winnipeg on Tuesday. (James Turner/CBC)

“I was given a second chance in life, and I would like to think that I’ve made good on that opportunity. And you can do the same — here’s how. My life became immeasurably better when I stopped making excuses and I started looking for a reason. 

“And I found that reason in our family. I found that reason in our community. And I found that reason in our province and country.”

Discontent with government

As of late Tuesday night, Kinew’s NDP had snagged at least 30 of 57 seats — a double-digit gain from the 18 they clinched in 2019 and a clear victory for the party.

The win comes after recent polling suggested the NDP had taken the lead in the race over the Progressive Conservatives, who had been in power since 2016 and won a second straight majority government in 2019.

But the governing party was unable to rise above a drop in opinion polls it faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, as case numbers spiked during the second and third waves and Manitoba sent dozens of intensive care patients to other provinces because its own hospitals were overwhelmed.

A woman is shown speaking at a podium.
Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson gives her concession speech following her party’s loss in the Manitoba election on Tuesday. Stefanson said she would step down as party leader after the NDP won a majority government. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

Heather Stefanson later replaced controversial former premier Brian Pallister as PC leader in a hotly contested leadership race in October 2021 — but even two years of a new face ended up falling short of being able to convince many Manitobans the party had changed enough to overcome that sense of discontent.

The Manitoba NDP had been the Official Opposition since being ousted by the Progressive Conservatives in a crushing 2016 defeat that followed a caucus revolt against former leader Greg Selinger — someone the PCs continually tried to link Kinew to this year, even before the campaign officially began.

Health care front of mind — not attacks

The results of Manitoba’s election send a message that Kinew’s vision of revamping the province’s health-care system — including the NDP’s crown jewel promise to reopen three emergency rooms that were closed under the PC government — may have resonated with voters more than anything else.

The win also suggests the NDP leader was also able to convince Manitobans he would be a fiscally responsible premier on issues ranging from fighting homelessness to tackling the high cost of living, despite his opponents’ suggestions to the contrary.

The NDP victory is also likely to signal a reversal of the PC government’s decision not to help fund a search of the Prairie Green landfill for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran, homicide victims whose remains police believe were taken to the Winnipeg-area site.

That landfill search — along with a pledge to bolster parental rights in schools, which some critics feared would parallel changes in other regions that require schools to get parental consent to use the chosen names and pronouns of kids under 16 — were among the divisive topics that characterized the final stretch of the PC campaign.

Meanwhile, Kinew was the face of a largely positive campaign despite escalating attack ads by the Progressive Conservatives aimed at criminal charges in his past — charges that either resulted in stays or pardons, and which the NDP leader has said are part of what motivated him to get into politics.

Some critics argued those ads drew on racist stereotypes about Kinew.

A large crowd of solemn looking people stand listening.
Progressive Conservative supporters listen as Stefanson gives her concession speech on Tuesday. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

“It seemed to reek of desperation,” said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus in political studies at the University of Manitoba, adding that while Stefanson has said she doesn’t micromanage the party’s advertising, what the campaign puts out is ultimately her responsibility.

Stefanson, who resigned as party leader after conceding Tuesday night, felt the PCs’ failure in her home riding of Tuxedo — which she won handily in 2019 and which still hadn’t been called between her or her NDP opponent into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Kelly Saunders, an associate political science professor at Brandon University, said the PCs gambled and lost on several fronts: first by underestimating how important health care would be to voters and second by focusing on “nasty divisive politics.”

The party will have to put some serious thought into where it goes from here, she said.

“Do they try to get back to their more Progressive Conservative roots?” said Saunders. 

“Or do they continue, you know, shifting more towards the right? Which is what we saw in the last few weeks.”

Indigeneity highlighted

For his part, Kinew rarely acknowledged the fact that he’s Indigenous on the campaign trail — preferring instead to tell reporters he didn’t want to be the First Nations premier of Manitoba, but “the best premier of Manitoba.”

The one exception was an August speech at Winnipeg’s Canadian Mennonite University, where he characterized his primary opponents’ attempts to make his past run-ins with the law a campaign issue as being at least in part motivated by racism, or “the fact that I’m somebody who sometimes wears my hair in a braid.”

Indigenous issues also appeared to be largely sidelined by the NDP during the election campaign, in spite — or perhaps because — of the fact its leader was poised to become Manitoba’s first First Nations premier. 

But Kinew’s use of his victory speech to directly address Indigenous youth — and signing it off by telling the audience “thank you and miigwech” — signaled something new from the premier-designate, who Saunders said had to navigate discussing his Indigeneity carefully during a campaign where his opponents tried to weaponize it.

“Whereas tonight, you know, he could maybe be a little bit more free … and a little bit more himself,” she said.

“It was kind of nice for him to be able to feel comfortable enough, maybe, to be able to share that experience in a way that he didn’t feel he was able to during the campaign, where he had to be more guarded.”

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