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Manitoba Tory cabinet minister denounces right-wing pivot in election campaign


A Manitoba cabinet minister defeated in Tuesday's provincial election says the Progressive Conservative party she has served for years took a hard-right pivot during the election campaign, and now needs to address an identity crisis.

Rochelle Squires, who has served in a variety of cabinet posts since the Tories took power in 2016, said she was surprised by campaign ads that touted the government's opposition to a landfill search for the remains of Indigenous women.

"It certainly was a surprise and certainly was something that was not reflective of the work that we had been doing in government for the last seven-and-a-half years, and it's deeply regrettable," Squires said in an interview Wednesday.

Squires, who had previously been front and centre for some of the Tory's major campaign announcements, made a decision when she saw the ads.

"I made a decision that I didn't want to lead any news conferences."

She stayed out of the campaign spotlight after that, focusing on her own constituency of Riel in south Winnipeg, and did not attend party leader Heather Stefanson's final campaign event on the day before the vote.

The election saw the Tories lose many seats in Winnipeg, emerging with three of the 32 seats in the city. The NDP swept large swaths of the city and formed a majority government.

Squires has served for more than two years as families minister. Known as one of the more progressive members of caucus, she boosted funding for women's programming and LGBTQ groups, added supports for people with disabilities and marched in Pride parades even before being elected.

She said she was taken aback when the government took out ads, including large billboards, saying it would "stand firm" in refusing requests to search the Prairie Green Landfill for the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran. A man has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths last year.

Stefanson, who announced her resignation as Tory leader on Tuesday night, has pointed to safety concerns about asbestos and toxic material in the landfill. A federally funded study said a search is feasible, but special safety precautions would be needed, and the search could cost up to $184 million with no guarantee of success.

Tory campaign manager Marni Larkin defended the ads, saying that they showed Stefanson can make tough decisions in the face of tremendous public pressure.

"I think it was really important to establish that our leader, in the face of probably the most heart-wrenching, difficult decisions, can make them," Larkin said on election night.

"We believe Manitobans would prefer us to invest in homelessness, addictions, recovery, domestic violence -- making sure that these things don't happen."

Squires said other Tory moves also point to a pivot to the right, such as campaigning on a promise to have "stronger parental rights" in schools. She said the party is now at a crossroads.

"The party needs to decide, does it want to pivot right and lose the progressiveness in the title? But then, (if so), be honest about it."

Squires, who had been touted as a potential party leader in the past, lost her seat Tuesday to the NDP's Mike Moyes. She was among several urban Tories to lose seats to the New Democrats.

Squires says she is leaving politics and looking toward a new chapter in her life.

The Tory campaign messaging was also criticized Wednesday by David McLaughlin, who managed two successful Tory elections under former premier Brian Pallister in 2016 and 2019. McLaughlin later served as clerk of the executive council, and was let go by Stefanson when she took over as premier.

"Politics is a game of addition, not subtraction. What this campaign practised was a campaign of subtraction rather than addition," he said.

McLaughlin compared the landfill ads to a plan by former federal Conservative leader Stephen Harper in 2015 to set up a telephone hotline for people to report "barbaric cultural practices." The idea met with widespread public backlash.

McLaughlin said as a campaign manager, he would not have accepted someone proposing a landfill ad.

"I would have thrown them out of the room."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2023 Top Stories

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