Why Premier Heather Stefanson would not be eager to call an inquiry — any inquiry

Two years into the pandemic, Manitoba’s premier concedes her government bears some responsibility for the way the province has managed COVID-19.

“No one is perfect in any of this, me included,” Heather Stefanson said during a scrum with reporters at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet on March 23.

“Have we made mistakes? Yes. What we need to do is learn from these mistakes so we can move on and make sure that we make choices based on that moving forward.”

The premier was then asked to identify those mistakes.

“I don’t know. I don’t have all of them in front of me right now,” she said. “I know that people believe that there’s been challenges and again, I’m not perfect.

“I’ll continue to make mistakes, but I’ll continue to learn from those mistakes and make sure that moving forward that we’re going to focus on strengthening our health care system.”

The premier’s comments are significant because several provinces are reviewing aspects of their health-care systems or revamping their pandemic responses after learning painful lessons over the past two years.

The most notable is Quebec, which called a coroner’s inquiry into the deaths of seniors in long-term care homes during the first wave of the pandemic. 

That inquiry has already been told how that province focused more on preparing hospitals for COVID-19 than personal care homes, with disastrous results for seniors, many of whom died without adequate care.

Manitoba experienced a similar tragedy during the second wave of the pandemic, when COVID-19 ripped through personal care homes and killed hundreds of seniors.

While the Progressive Conservative government under former premier Brian Pallister called an external review into the COVID outbreak at the Maples Long-Term Care Home, there has been no examination of the broader conditions that allowed COVID transmission to spiral out of control during the fall of 2020.

Likewise, Manitoba has never shone a spotlight on the conditions that led to Manitoba hospitals getting overwhelmed with serious COVID patients during the third wave of the pandemic during the spring of 2021.

To be clear, such an examination would not be simple to undertake.

There are a lot of factors that led Manitoba to suffer through some of the worst outcomes from the pandemic, including Canada’s second-highest COVID death rate and the highest COVID hospitalization rate of the Omicron wave.

The general state of health in this province is one factor. So is the province’s hospital capacity and readiness to handle a pandemic. The decisions made by public health officials and politicians during the pandemic would also come under scrutiny.

That’s partly why the opposition New Democrats first called for a pandemic inquiry in November 2021, and pledged to commission such an inquiry should they form the next provincial government in the fall of 2023.

The NDP’s call for an inquiry was followed up in January by the Manitoba Health Coalition, whose board is made up of union leaders and the directors of other left-of-centre organizations, all of them friendly with the NDP.

The partisan nature of the inquiry call makes it even more unlikely Stefanson would ever submit to a broad examination of the way her government handled the pandemic.

To be clear, Stefanson was never expected to call an inquiry. Despite her statements last week about the need to learn from mistakes, her government is only 18 months away from a general election where its performance during the pandemic will come under question.

A pandemic inquiry would generate precisely the sort of daily headlines the PCs won’t want to see in the weeks or months before their candidates go door to door, especially in Winnipeg.

Stefanson celebrates PC MLA-elect Obby Khan’s recent Fort Whyte byelection victory. Her party faces a general election in 2023. (Ian Froese/CBC)

For very different reasons, Stefanson is also unlikely to heed a call for a separate inquiry that Mayor Brian Bowman, city council and opposition politicians at the legislature have supported since 2018: A public examination of the City of Winnipeg’s police-headquarters project and other major capital procurement and real-estate scandals at city hall.

For four years, the mayor and council have been pushing for this inquiry because it could compel former city officials to speak publicly about what drove the city to buy the former Canada Post building without considering other options, and what led city officials to suppress a consultant’s report that found it would cost about the same amount of money to renovate and expand the old Public Safety Building instead.

The mayor and council also wanted an inquiry to look into how police-headquarters construction contract was awarded and also potentially look into real-estate transactions red-flagged by a 2014 audit, including the Parker land swap and the sales of the Winnipeg Square Parkade and Canad Inns Stadium Site.

Former premier Brian Pallister said he had no interest in a city hall inquiry while the RCMP were still investigating the police headquarters. After that investigation ended, Pallister cited the absence of charges as evidence there was no need for the inquiry.

There are renewed calls for the inquiry now that a judge presiding over a civil suit determined former Winnipeg chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl accepted a bribe from the main contractor on the police-headquarters project.

Stefanson has rejected these calls, at least in the short term, noting the City of Winnipeg has to complete its civil action against dozens of other defendants the police-headquarters case.

There is precedent for this delay, Stefanson said in a scrum on March 18, citing the need to hold off on the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry until all litigation was complete in that case.

But even if the police-HQ litigation were complete, a city hall inquiry would not be advantageous for Stefanson or the PCs. 

For starters, it would be awkward.

Several of the donors to Stefanson’s PC leadership campaign in 2021 had roles in the police-headquarters project, even as they have never been the subject of civil litigation or RCMP investigation.

Likewise, two members of Stefanson’s executive team served in former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz’s office and could be compelled to speak at a city hall inquiry.

The premier rejects the idea a city hall inquiry would be an irritant.

“Unequivocally, the decision to call a public inquiry is in no way influenced by staff having roles at the City of Winnipeg several years ago or those who contributed to the leadership campaign,” Stefanson’s office said in a statement.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, who leaves office this year, has been calling for an inquiry into city hall projects since 2018. (Travis Golby/CBC)

More significantly, Stefanson’s bid for PC leader was backed by her party’s Winnipeg establishment. Several weeks of public testimony by former city officials — testimony that would almost certainly shine a light on the relationships between elected officials, senior bureaucrats and members of Winnipeg’s construction and real-estate industry — would not be comfortable for this portion of her party’s base.

Governments like stability. Inquiries undermine stability for any party in power. 

If the NDP takes power in 2023, there is no guarantee they will follow through on pledges to call pandemic or police-HQ inquiries.

Brian Pallister repeatedly called for an inquiry into the construction of IG Field when the PCs were in opposition. Once in power, the former premier determined he had better things to do with his time.