Normally safe Fort Whyte seat could be in play in byelection as PC government’s popularity slides

The well-to-do Fort Whyte constituency would normally be considered one of the safest Tory seats in Winnipeg — but it may not look that way after next week’s byelection.

The popularity of the governing Progressive Conservatives entered a tailspin in the pandemic, and not even a new leader in Heather Stefanson has turned it around.

If that plummeting support is felt in a Tory stronghold like Fort Whyte, which was represented by former premier Brian Pallister, it could underscore the challenges the governing party faces in getting re-elected in 2023.

“A very thin win or even a loss would be a very, very strong indicator for the PCs [that] they’re really in deep trouble in Winnipeg,” said University of Manitoba political scientist Christopher Adams, referring, in part, to recent polling that suggests the NDP enjoy more popular support than the Tories, particularly in vote-rich Winnipeg.

The Tories are trying to hold onto the riding, which Pallister handily won in 2019 with 57 per cent of votes cast. The NDP came in a distant second, with 17.9 per cent of the vote and the Liberals got third place with 17.6 per cent.

In the byelection for the seat left vacant after the former premier’s resignation, the PCs have a star candidate in former Winnipeg Blue Bomber and accomplished entrepreneur Obby Khan.

The candidates likely to be his toughest foes in the March 22 byelection have name recognition too: Liberal Willard Reaves is also an ex-Blue Bomber, and the NDP’s Trudy Schroeder was previously the executive director of both the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Nicolas Geddert is running for the Green Party and Patrick Allard is an Independent candidate. 

Record speaks for itself: Khan

If Fort Whyte voters are tiring of the Progressive Conservatives, Khan isn’t saying.

His reception at the door has been positive, with people telling him they’re thrilled he’s running, he said. But he isn’t taking the race for granted.

“Every election is a fight, every game I played is a fight, every business I open is competition, right?”

Khan is proud of what he’s accomplished after retiring from his nine-year CFL career in 2012. He’s launched the Shawarma Khan restaurant chain, the Green Carrot juice company and, more recently, the online marketplace GoodLocal — all while working for a number of volunteer causes, he said.

“I ask people to look at an entire body of what I’ve done and then vote for me, because I will bring that strong voice to Fort Whyte.”

Khan, left, knock on doors with a campaign volunteer in a Fort Whyte riding that has historically voted for his PC party. It remains to be seen if the governing party’s chances are hurt by its sinking popularity across Winnipeg. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Khan said the PC Party makes sense for him as it is “fiscally responsible [and] socially minded,” and he applauds its support of small businesses.

Asked if the Tories did enough to respond to COVID-19, he acknowledged the challenges of governing during a pandemic.

“I mean, shoulda, coulda, woulda. I think the government did the best they could at the time … under the advice they were given by public health orders, from doctors, from experts in the area,” Khan said.

“No one knew what was happening, what was going on, what was going to happen.”

As the candidate regarded as the favourite to win the race, he’s also a target for the opposition. 

He’s taken heat for the fact his GoodLocal business received a $500,000 provincial grant, though Khan argued it supported 450 businesses selling their products online.

“What has the opposition done to help small businesses at that level, at that scale?” he asked.

Reaves started door-knocking in November

Reaves said his dedication to becoming the riding’s next MLA is apparent to Fort Whyte voters.

Since he became the Liberal candidate last November, he has knocked on doors six days a week, no matter how many extreme cold warnings the city saw.

On the chilliest days, Reaves would tell voters he met that it’s not always going to be great weather.

“It’s just like in politics, you have to take the good with the bad — and right now in politics is bad,” he said.

Reaves hasn’t let extreme cold stop him from door-knocking in Fort Whyte. The Liberals are hoping to pick up a fourth seat with a byelection win. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Reaves, a star Blue Bomber running back in the 1980s who went on to work in the provincial justice department and in retail, confessed he’s voted Tory in the past, but said he’s been frustrated by the government’s decisions. He said the health-care system is in disarray, as his wife, a nurse, can attest.

“The way they have done things with our health-care system … it just really tees me off to no end.” 

The Liberals are investing time and energy in the race.  A win would give the party a fourth seat in the 57-seat legislature and, in turn, official status, meaning more funding and more time to speak during question period.

Reaves said he wouldn’t be running for office if he didn’t think he’d have a chance.

“I’ve never played for second place.”

Send a message to government: NDP

The NDP’s Schroeder acknowledges Fort Whyte hasn’t historically supported her party, but she said voters should send a message to a government that’s lost its way.

“When I meet people who are dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, I say, you know what, you’re not marrying me. This is not a lifetime commitment.”

Instead, an NDP vote is “saying to the Conservatives, ‘You’ve got to do better; don’t take us for granted,'” said Schroeder.

She’s also discouraging voters from choosing the Liberals, saying her party, which currently holds 17 seats, is the most viable option for a strong opposition voice.

Schroeder, left, is briefed on the NDP team’s door-knocking efforts. (Travis Golby/CBC)

“The government will not change if I go there,” she said.

But “what we need right now are many voices that can actually help to … urge the government to move in the right direction.”

Schroeder said her non-profit leadership bona fides are an asset in the political realm. She whittled down significant deficits while leading the symphony and Folk Festival, and said her ability to stretch a penny is “almost legendary.”

“I don’t change things by cutting. I change things by growing organizations, by finding opportunity,” she said.

Schroeder has committed to campaigning again in the 2023 general election and building the NDP’s presence in the riding.

Geddert looks at the Fort Whyte byelection as a chance to empower the Green Party’s youth volunteers to learn about the mechanisms of running in an election. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The Green Party is using the byelection to prepare for that election.

Geddert, who ran for the party in the 2019 election in Elmwood, said his campaign is giving new youth members a chance to get election experience under their belt.

“When I have that disillusionment and disheartenment in politics, I go to our youth committee meetings and it gives me a sense that we’re going to be OK,” he said.

With a career in housing, Geddert said if elected, he’d explore ways to increase the stock of ecologically built and socially conscious homes.

He’d also like government to provide more funding and support to social service organizations.

Allard said he can truly represent the interests of voters as an Independent candidate, because he doesn’t have to fall in line with any political party. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Allard, the Independent candidate in the race, has been an outspoken critic of pandemic restrictions. 

He was arrested for allegedly taking part in two outdoor public gatherings that exceeded capacity limits, and for allegations he encouraged people to block roads into IG Field because only vaccinated people could attend CFL games.

Allard said he isn’t at odds with law enforcement. 

“I do agree with following the law. I do agree that if you don’t like the law, you run for office and change it.”

Allard wants public health decisions debated at the floor of the legislature, rather than requiring the government to sign off. He adds he isn’t a one-issue candidate and would provide a voice to those who feel ignored.

Advance voting continues until March 17. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the March 22 voting day. More information, including voting locations, is available at the Elections Manitoba website.