Kinew accuses more PCs of trying to push mining deal through after election, but Tory says NDP ‘crying wolf’

Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew alleges more Progressive Conservative MLAs were involved in trying to get approval for a controversial mining project after their party lost last fall’s election than he originally thought. 

On Tuesday, the NDP produced internal government documents, written last October and obtained through a freedom of information request, in which Manitoba’s top civil servant wrote that three PC cabinet ministers — Derek Johnson, Cliff Cullen, and Jeff Wharton — sought information about the Sio Silica project after their government was voted out of office that month. 

The now-governing New Democrats claim the ex-cabinet ministers weren’t just gathering information, but, according to complaints filed with the province’s ethics commissioner, were trying to improperly issue a licence for the project, which sought to drill as many as 7,200 wells in southeastern Manitoba to extract millions of tonnes of ultra-pure silica sand.

The NDP had previously lodged an ethics complaint against Wharton, the former economic development minister.

The two newly accused Tories, Johnson and Cullen, denied any wrongdoing Tuesday and said they were going about their jobs by compiling information to provide to the incoming government. They said they weren’t trying to push the project forward.

The NDP government went on to reject the environmental licence because it deemed the risk to the water supply to be too great. 

Ministers told of caretaker convention

A key piece of the NDP’s latest allegation centres on an email in the documents the party obtained. 

Kathryn Gerrard, then Manitoba’s top civil servant as the clerk of executive council, wrote in an Oct. 12 email to an official at the environment department that any additional information sought by other cabinet ministers about the silica mining project should be distributed between ministers.

“I will continue to state as provided to these ministers, that we are in caretaker convention until the new government is sworn in,” she added.

The caretaker convention is an informal democratic principle that dissuades outgoing governments from making consequential decisions during the period between an election and the next government’s swearing in.

In a brief scrum with reporters Tuesday, Kinew didn’t answer questions about where, specifically, the documents his party obtained show cabinet ministers were trying to ram through approvals for the mining proposal.

He only said the documents raised “serious questions.”

A man in a suit is pictured speaking into a microphone.
Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew accused the former PC government of violating the caretaker convention, a principle in which an outgoing government leaves any major decisions for their successor. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

But earlier in the afternoon, Kinew claimed the PCs tried to exert undue influence on the Sio Silica deal following the Oct. 3 election.

“This is new information about the fundamental principle of our democracy being violated by the outgoing PC administration. The allegation that has been made is that they ignored the will of the people and sought to, through back channels, approve a major mining development in the province after they had lost power,” Kinew said.

“My question for the members opposite is, how many PC ministers have to be caught up in this thing before it is called a conspiracy?”

Earlier this year, the NDP lodged ethics complaints against Wharton and Heather Stefanson, the former premier, after both Kinew and former PC cabinet minister Kevin Klein alleged the Tories tried to approve the Sio Silica proposal, in breach of the caretaker convention.

Klein and former PC cabinet minister Rochelle Squires — both of whom lost their seats in the election — alleged Wharton called to ask them to approve the project in the time period after the election and before the new government officially took over.

At the time, Klein was the government’s environment minister, and Squires was an acting environment minister.

The ethics commissioner’s investigation is ongoing.

Wharton has denied the claims from the two former PC MLAs, saying he called them to gather information about the Sio Silica mine to share with the incoming NDP government.

Squires wrote in a Winnipeg Free Press column Wharton told her the Sio Silica project was “of significant importance” to Stefanson, but that “because of a conflict, she herself couldn’t offer that directive.”

Stefanson has denied any conflict of interest with Sio Silica.

One briefing note of many: Johnson

On Tuesday, Johnson, who was re-elected in his Interlake-Gimli riding last October, said he didn’t personally ask for a briefing about the mining proposal. He accused the NDP of “crying wolf” over the regular transition of power.

“I know my department produced many, many briefing notes to put into the transition binder that the new ministers would receive,” Johnson said, adding it was one briefing note out of hundreds, if not more, being produced at that time.

Cullen, who is now retired from politics, called the NDP’s new complaints a “red herring.” 

He said he doesn’t specifically remember seeking a briefing note, but that his department was busy putting together information for the benefit of the new government. 

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson and Finance Minister Cliff Cullen stand beside each other and have a conversation in the legislative chamber before Cullen walks to his seat and prepares to read the 2023 budget speech.
Heather Stefanson and Cliff Cullen, then premier and deputy premier, in a 2023 file photo. The two have denied any attempts to issue an environmental licence for Sio Silica’s mining proposal. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

Cullen said his department provided a briefing to the NDP around the mining proposal.

“There was some urgency around it — [a] $3-billion investment in 8,000 jobs, so potentially a substantial investment in Manitoba,” he said.

“We wanted to make sure the NDP was aware of it, and that’s why we brought them in the loop.”

The NDP previously stated Cullen had suggested senior members of the incoming NDP government meet with the president of Sio Silica. He told CBC News in January he was motivated out of concern for Manitoba’s economy.