Manitoba Tory leadership hopeful OK with supporters criticizing vaccine mandate

One of the candidates running to be Manitoba's next premier appears to be taking a more relaxed approach to internal dissent over COVID-19 vaccine rules.

Heather Stefanson says two of her Progressive Conservative caucus colleagues -- James Teitsma and Josh Guenter -- are listening to and representing their constituents.

Outgoing Premier Brian Pallister had harsh words earlier this week for the two men when he commented that they were hurting their team and helping the opposition by publicly criticizing health policy.

Guenter wrote on social media that the government has no moral authority to dictate that only vaccinated people can receive certain services or see relatives in nursing homes.

Teitsma said requiring vaccine cards to go to restaurants, universities and gyms goes too far.

Stefanson, whose leadership bid has been endorsed by Teitsma, Guenter and many other Tories, says people are entitled to their own beliefs.

"Certainly, people represent their constituencies and they have a right to their own opinion," Stefanson, who recently served as health minister, said Tuesday.

"What we've been saying since Day 1 is that we need to be listening to our constituents. And so they are listening to their constituents and I will continue to listen to my constituents as everyone in caucus will."

The government last week announced that more places will require proof of vaccination starting Friday. They include sporting venues and concerts, restaurants, indoor theatres and casinos.

Stefanson is one of three people who have said they will seek the Tory leadership, which is to be decided by mail-in ballots on Oct. 30. Pallister has said he is stepping down Wednesday after more than five years as premier.

When asked whether she supports the government's policy, Stefanson pointed to another rule that requires all designated provincial public service workers who have ongoing contact with vulnerable populations, especially children, to be fully immunized or undergo regular testing.

"Absolutely, I think there should be testing for those who are working in those positions."

The Opposition New Democrats accused Stefanson of ducking an important question.

"Manitobans need a leader that can send a clear message about vaccines, but so far Stefanson can't seem to overcome the division within the (Tory) caucus," NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said in a written statement.

"Her refusal to take a clear position on such an important issue is a failure of leadership."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2021.