WINNIPEG -- When Brian Pallister was re-elected as the Premier of Manitoba more than one year ago, he says he never imagined he would be navigating the province through a global pandemic.

Despite a plummeting approval rating and loud criticism of his government's COVID-19 response, Pallister says he is proud of Manitobans and the way they handled an unprecedented year.

"I don't think any of us really anticipated this," Pallister told CTV's Jeff Keele in a year-end interview with CTV News Winnipeg.

"It's an unimaginable condition, but it's one that we're rising to face."

In early December, following weeks of spiking cases and deaths due to the virus, polls showed Pallister and Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government had the lowest approval rating in the country.

READ MORE: Premier Brian Pallister has the lowest approval rating in Canada: poll

Pallister said the pandemic is to blame for the low approval rating, adding nobody likes COVID-19.

"It is totally understandable and I've been around too long to worry too much about polls," Pallister said.

Following the news, Pallister made an emotional plea to Manitobans to curb their holiday plans saying he was the guy "who’s stealing Christmas to keep you safe" and called those who don't believe the pandemic is real "idiots."

His comments made headlines across North America, but Pallister faced criticism in his own province.

"There's always going to be critical comments when things go south. I've played on enough losing teams to know people panic sometimes, but that isn't productive," he said.

"You need to look forward, and looking forward I would say we have to continue to err on the side of caution, safety and concern. That's what we've done throughout this pandemic and that's where we need to stay."

The premier said the restrictions in place in Manitoba, which he says are the strictest in Canada, are working.

"I can say that people are getting COVID less frequently here now," Pallister said, saying Manitoba's COVID-19 case numbers have dropped while other provinces have seen cases rise.

Current health orders are in place until January 8, but it is not clear if they will be extended further into the New Year.

"Obviously, if COVID was eliminated by the end of the year, we'd be opening our businesses, but it's not going to be eliminated by the end of the year," Pallister said.

"So some measures I hope can be taken to relax the restrictions, but we have to balance that with the safety issue and we've erred on the side of safety."

It has been one week since the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was brought to Manitoba, and now another vaccine is on the way. But Manitoba's rollout of the vaccine has also been met with controversy.

Pallister faced backlash from Indigenous leaders in the province for comments he made criticizing the federal government's vaccine distribution among First Nations.

READ MORE: 'Seeds of division:' Indigenous leaders criticize Brian Pallister's vaccine comments

The premier told CTV News he is calling for more vaccines for First Nations people living in Manitoba, saying there needs to be a greater focus on protecting high-risk areas.

"We got close to 10,000 more vaccines for the North because somebody in this office had the audacity to say, 'We need more help for First Nations people,'" he said. "We got help, but it's not enough. We need even more help."

As for when the premier, who is 66-years-old and has asthma, plans to roll up his sleeve;

"When it's my turn, not a day sooner," he said.

Pallister provided little clarity on what his future as the Premier of Manitoba may hold, and would not say if he plans to remain in office for a full second term.

"I'm here as long as COVID is here. I'm fighting it," Pallister said, adding his parents did not raise any quitters. "This is not a short-run thing, and my willingness to accept the challenges isn't a short-run thing either."

It is a challenge Pallister said he is worried may become even greater over the holidays if Manitobans disregard public health orders and gather with friends and family for Christmas.

"I'm concerned – very, very concerned," Pallister said. "If we relax, COVID takes advantage of that and then it kills people. We cannot do that, we can save lives right now doing the right thing – just stick close to home and do your best with a tough, tough situation."

Pallister said he is proud of how Manitobans have faced the pandemic so far and urged people to have a safe holiday.

"We'll look back next year when we're together again with pride that we did this. That we saved the lives of friends and family."

-With files from CTV's Jeff Keele.