Over the course of the pandemic, Manitoba has become the stage of one of the tensest political situations in Canada. Currently, Progressive Conservative (PC) Premier Brian Pallister has the lowest approval rating out of any provincial leader in the country. This is the first time since 2016 that approval for Pallister has dipped below approval for the provincial New Democratic Party (NDP). Things are so bad that he appears to be considering leaving office before his second term is up.
These figures make perfect sense against the backdrop of COVID-19. The provincial government has completely fumbled their handling of the pandemic. From late spring until November, Manitoba lacked any serious COVID measures, which allowed infection rates to spiral out of control. This paired with already low living standards has meant that Manitoba has had some of the worst infection rates in the country.
As of writing, Manitoba has seen a total of 26,695 recorded cases and 753 deaths, which are shocking figures considering that the province only has a population of around 1 million people. In December, the provincial infection rates peaked at 30 cases per 100,000 people. This can be compared with Ontario and Quebec, where at the same time rates were around 10 and 15 respectively.
The scene before the pandemic
Pallister’s unpopularity is not without cause. Manitoba has a lower standard of living compared to elsewhere in Canada, which meant that Manitobans were more vulnerable to illness and poverty even before COVID-19 was a consideration. At $11.90 an hour, the province has the third lowest minimum wage in the country, beating Saskatchewan, which has the lowest, by only 45 cents.
This plays a role in Manitoba’s shocking rates of poverty. For instance, in 2018, there was a homeless population of 1,500 recorded in Winnipeg, out of its total population of roughly 750,000. Edmonton, by comparison, which is a city with nearly 300,000 more people, has an estimated homeless population of 2,000. Child poverty rates are particularly bad. Manitoba has the highest rates of child poverty out of any Canadian province, with 16.3 per cent of Manitoban children in two-parent households currently living below the poverty line, compared to the national average of 9.8 per cent. For one-parent households, this number leaps to 63.4 per cent. Of the five federal ridings in Canada with the worst child poverty rates, three are in Manitoba. The worst is in Churchill-Keewatinook Aski at 63 per cent. Bear in mind that these are pre-COVID statistics. Recent figures have certainly gotten worse.
In the context of general poverty, as well as poor prospects for economic growth, the PCs have remained faithful in representing the interests of Manitoba’s bosses and political elite. Their goal, first and foremost, has been to put the burden for this economic crisis on Manitoban workers by reducing spending and maintaining profits. This was especially clear in their 2020 budget, which was passed shortly before the pandemic spread to western Canada. The budget introduced tax cuts, while also cutting funding for university and college grants, road maintenance, child and family services, and employment and income assistance, among other services.
Most significant now are the government’s long-standing cuts to public healthcare. Back in 2017, the PC government announced the closure of half of Winnipeg’s six hospital emergency departments. These departments were transitioned into “urgent-care centres,” which are less equipped to deal with life-threatening issues. The consequences of these cuts have been significant. In September of 2016, Press Progress noted that Manitoba had the second longest emergency wait times in the country. They sit right under Prince Edward Island, which has only four hospitals with emergency rooms.
This has resulted in intense overwork for public nurses. In 2018, emergency room nurses saw a 32 per cent increase in overtime hours worked compared to the year prior. For critical care unit nurses, this was an increase of 77 per cent. It doesn’t take a medical expert to see that filling a hospital with fatigued, overstretched nurses is a recipe for disaster. From October to December of 2017, the months directly after emergency room closures, there were 43 critical mistakes reported by Manitoba Health, which Manitoba Nurses’ Union president Darlene Jackson attributes to overwork. One incident involved a woman who was incorrectly given a lumpectomy. It should be stated that this isn’t the fault of the nurses, but rather the natural consequence of cuts to healthcare spending. A recent study from the U.K. found a clear link between austerity measures and increases in preventable deaths.
But all this clearly wasn’t enough for Pallister. In November of 2017, Pallister froze funding for Winnipeg ambulance services, which translated into a cut while taking inflation into account. Back in 2018, the PC government demanded the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) find $83 million in savings. Later that same year, they demanded an additional $36 million.
It only takes a glance to see that the government has continued this trend of austerity well into 2020. Manitoba’s current regional healthcare board, which was appointed in May 2020, is composed overwhelmingly of people without any experience in healthcare. According to a report by Press Progress, “In total, only eight trained healthcare professionals are currently appointed across Manitoba’s five regional health boards.” Compare this to the 32 out of 59 health board appointees who come from prominent positions in business and finance. Most of the people on this supposed health board aren’t even qualified enough to administer a bandaid, let alone determine healthcare policy.
Manitoba identified its first case of COVID-19 on March 12, 2020, and by March 20, the province declared a state of emergency. On April 1, the province ordered the closure of all “non-critical” services, which included restaurants, bars, and hair salons. Despite reacting quickly, the government was unwilling to commit for very long, reversing these measures almost immediately. Manitoba was in fact one of the provincial governments to reopen quickest. CBC referred to it as “one of the most aggressive economic restarts of any Canadian province.” As early as May, they announced the reopening of restaurants, pubs, hair salons, and most retail stores that had been closed. Public schools were also opened at the beginning of the fall semester. The government “recommended” students from grades 5 to 12 wear masks, but didn’t require it.
The PCs rolled out the reopening with incredible fanfare, shelling out half a million dollars of public funds on a special ad campaign. They even went so far as to pay people to come out of lockdown! The government offered up to $2,000 dollars to anyone who rejected federal COVID relief money and instead worked at least 30 hours a week.
The plan certainly wasn’t carried out without criticism. During the summer a petition criticising the reopening was popular enough to garner over 40,000 signatures. In November, two separate open letters, signed by hundreds of doctors. calling for a comprehensive lockdown and emergency funding to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic were released less than a week apart from one another. At the time, Health Minister Cameron Friesen suggested that the two open letters were released specifically to “cause chaos,” which is incredibly insulting considering these were proposals designed to prevent the chaos caused by government policy.
Reopening went as terribly as one may expect. At the beginning of November, the government announced a monstrous jump of 1,141 new cases, which put them at the highest infection rate in the country. The government was forced to do a complete 180 and transitioned into some of the most heavy-handed COVID measures of any of the provinces. Manitoba switched into “code red”, banning all social gatherings, restricting travel to and from Northern Manitoba, and completely closing restaurants, gyms, bars, hair salons, libraries, movie theaters, and concert halls, among others (although the sale of Christmas decorations curiously remained open over the holidays).
To enforce these measures, the Pallister government has been handing out heavy fines. As of December, the government had issued $180,000 in fines for violation of health orders. One church was fined $20,000 for holding drive-in service. In addition, Pallister has created a tip line where people can report healthcode violations. Most recently, the government has even begun hiring private police to help enforce regulations.
As of the time of writing, these measures have managed to bring rates down, but no credit should be extended to Pallister or the rest of his administration. We can’t forget who allowed things to get this far out of control to begin with. Even now, Pallister continues to make excuses for his government’s inaction. In a year-end interview with CBC, Pallister insinuated that locking down the province any earlier would have essentially been “dictatorship.” He added, “For me to have said, ‘Let’s shut down all the businesses and restrict travel’ in August, when we had nine cases a week, I don’t think Manitobans would have said, ‘Boy, what foresight. That premier’s a brilliant guy.’ I think they would have said, ‘No, I want to be with my family and go for a walk in the park and I don’t want to be told that I can’t.'”
Likewise, there’s a clear discrepancy in who the government is willing to punish for violating health measures. Take the Maples Long Term Care Home in Winnipeg, for example, which has been the centre of a shocking outbreak. As of November 30, 49 people linked to the home have died of COVID-19. Yet, city police have announced that they won’t be conducting any kind of investigation into the outbreak! The government has no issue handing out hefty fines to individuals breaking protocols, yet won’t even look into the source of a major outbreak. Health Minister Friesen, who previously argued that anti-mask groups make some “good points,” had the gall to brush off outbreaks in long-term care homes as “unavoidable.”
Far from just ignoring outbreaks, the government has actively made the problem worse. Back in November, the provincial government had to recall thousands of N95 masks they had distributed, including those given to child care, health care, and home care workers because they were over a decade past expired. Workers who used the masks reported experiencing nausea, coughing fits, and skin irritation, among other symptoms. It wasn’t until the Canadian Union of Public Employees filed 55 grievances on their behalf that the government actually recalled the N95s.
Even now, nearly half of Manitoba’s care home workers are still waiting to be fitted for N95s. In a similar vein, the government has asked home care workers to split their time between house calls and shifts at care homes. Care home and home care patients are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and this sort of mixing of social bubbles puts them at serious risk.
Further proof of the government’s lack of a serious approach towards the pandemic can be found in the particular crisis of COVID-19 among Indigenous people. Although First Nations only make up 10.5 per cent of Manitoba’s population, they make up a third of all of Manitoba’s COVID hospitalizations and nearly half of all ICU cases. In December, there were a recorded 117 active cases at Shamattawa First Nations, a reservation of only about 1,110 people. Shamattawa, along with Red Sucker Lake First Nations, have both received military relief.
In this, the Conservatives don’t see a horrifying public health crisis, but an opportunity to stir-up divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers. Early in December, premier Pallister decried plans from the federal government to reserve a portion of COVID-19 vaccines specifically for Indigenous Manitobans. He said, “This puts Manitobans at the back of the line. This hurts Manitobans, to put it mildly.” He says this as if First Nations people don’t belong to the province and aren’t Manitobans too! It makes perfect sense for these communities to receive the vacations the earliest. Reservations have had the highest rate of transmission in the province, and it’s only logical to send supplies earliest to areas that are worst off. Pallister is clearly trying to exploit this to make it seem like the vaccination rollout is an attack on non-Indigenous workers. This is the classic tactic of divide and rule. By whipping up divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, Pallister is hoping to turn the anger away from his government and towards infighting over “privilege”.
Labour must mobilize!
By this point, the Conservatives have done seemingly everything they can to turn the province against them. This mass hatred towards Pallister’s government is paving the way for a potential social explosion. Pallister himself can read the writing on the wall, and has been trying to weaken the movement against him before it even starts.
The province has been readying a Bill designed to “protect infrastructure,” which is aimed at protests similar to the Wet’suwet’en solidarity railway blockades that took place last winter. The Bill would make it illegal for protesters to block roads and railways. The language surrounding the bill heavily mirrors Alberta’s Bill 1, which was passed to ban protesting on “critical infrastructure.” Bill 1 is written so ambiguously that anything from a sidewalk to a public park can be considered “critical infrastructure,” effectively banning the legal right to protest. It appears that Pallister is taking direct inspiration from this, and wants to enact a similar law.
Likewise, among a barrage of 33 other bills that the government is getting ready to pass in quick succession, there is Bill 16, which would give employers the legal ability to fire workers for going on strike. The bill would also lower the threshold for union decertification from 50 to 40 per cent of the membership, which would give the minority of a union’s membership the ability to dissolve it. Despite defending his initial refusal to lockdown by saying “we don’t live in a dictatorship,” Pallister has absolutely no problem attacking the fundamental democratic rights to strike and protest.
The Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) has spoken out against the government’s anti-labour legislation and put forward a petition against it. This is a fine first step, but it is not enough to simply speak out against an issue. Concrete solutions need to be put forward along with a plan of action to achieve them.
Comprehensive lockdown measures at the early stages of the pandemic would have gone a long way to control its spread. However, these measures were sacrificed for the sake of profit. We can’t have any faith that the capitalists or ruling politicians will get us out of the blind alley they themselves have led us into. We need to fight back with a platform of workers’ control that will ensure proper safety regulations are established and observed. Workers need to be given the final word over whether or not their industry is essential and should remain open, and whether working conditions are indeed safe. For whatever industries do remain open, social distancing protocols cannot be decided in corporate boardrooms or government buildings far away from the actual workplace. The workers on the ground need to decide what measures are necessary to keep people safe.
Pallister’s anti-worker legislation should not dissuade us from fighting back. The working class has more than enough strength to defeat any attacks his government sends their way. Manitoba’s unionization rates are among the highest in the country. The MFL alone represents nearly a tenth of the province’s total population. So long as the struggle against Pallister remains inactive and atomized, he can act without consequence. But an active, broad movement would be powerful enough to stop these attacks. Provincial labour leadership needs to mobilize its membership against Pallister in favour of a program of workers’ control to deal with the pandemic. Manitoba’s unions need to commit to direct labour action, like strikes, to secure these demands. For many working people, this is a question of life or death. There’s no room for any silence or hesitancy. Only an organized working class movement can secure genuine health and safety for Manitobans.