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Manitoba's new Progressive Conservative Leader, Wayne Ewasko, sitting in the legislature, says he wants the Tories to move toward the progressive side of their politics.Phil Hossack/The Globe and Mail

Manitoba’s new Progressive Conservative leader, Wayne Ewasko, believes his party needs to rebuild a lot of trust after a rough loss in the election last fall. But he knows he is inheriting a set of controversial policies that will make his ambitions tricky to navigate.

He remains unsure about where he stands on the much-debated landfill search to locate the remains of at least two First Nations women believed to have been the victims of a serial killer. In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail, he renewed his commitment to the polarizing parental rights movement spreading across Canada and the United States.

Still, he wants the Tories to move toward the progressive side of their politics.

“I strongly believe we lost the election – the NDP didn’t win it,” he told The Globe.

On a cloudy Monday in Winnipeg a few weeks ago, as he prepared for the spring sitting of the legislature, Mr. Ewasko described his party’s loss of identity and his intentions to reset its image.

“I’ll tell you, October was rough,” he said, recalling the difficult days after former premier Heather Stefanson found eight of her cabinet members without a seat in the legislature. Ms. Stefanson was herself nearly defeated in a historically safe seat.

In 2016, under Brian Pallister, the Tories formed the largest majority government in Manitoba’s history, with 40 of 57 seats, and were re-elected in 2019. But by 2021, with polls indicating his lack of popularity, Mr. Pallister resigned – a decision that was lauded by Indigenous leaders. Since then, the PCs have struggled to regain their footing.

Ultimately, it was this need to rebuild the party that excited Mr. Ewasko. “There’s a large percentage of Manitobans that did not choose the NDP to govern the province,” he said. “It’s our job now to not only hold them to account but also show Manitobans that we’re a government in waiting.”

Mr. Ewasko will remain the party’s interim leader at least until the tail end of this year, when the Tories are expected to hold a caucus vote for a permanent leader.

During the winter holidays, he asked his wife and two sons whether they would be okay with him taking on the job. He likened those conversations to the ones he had with his family when, in 2011, he was first elected as a 39-year-old.

A former high school teacher and guidance counsellor, Mr. Ewasko has represented Lac du Bonnet, a large rural riding northeast of Winnipeg, for more than a decade. After serving as minister of advanced education, skills and immigration in Mr. Pallister’s cabinet, Ms. Stefanson put him in charge of the education and early childhood learning portfolios.

Mr. Ewasko’s colleagues call him a quiet, steady force with an ability to work with people of differing opinions. Jeff Bereza, the MLA for Portage la Prairie, said he is “a champion of both rural and urban Manitoba.”

“His open-door policy, attitude and his ability to listen to his colleagues and all Manitobans will be a great asset,” said Trevor King, the MLA for Lakeside. “This is exactly what our party needs as we rebuild trust and reconnect with Manitoba voters,” said Lauren Stone, the MLA for Midland.

These positive assessments are important. Mr. Ewasko’s predecessors faced great pains to unite the party.

Rochelle Squires, a Progressive Conservative who lost her seat last year and became a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, said in a recent opinion piece that she was “surprised” by the strength of her party’s right-wing members “at the expense of moderate conservatives.”

For Mr. Ewasko, “moderation will be key,” she wrote. “As we see some conservative leaders, notably federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, continue to grow in popularity, there’ll be even more clamour for Manitoba PCs to follow suit, further thwarting any rebuilding efforts in its urban constituencies.”

Ms. Squires and several other Tories have now condemned the PC election campaign, which made a point of saying the party did not support the search of a Winnipeg-area dump where police believe the bodies of Morgan Harris, 39, and Marcedes Myran, 26, were disposed of after being killed in 2022.

Earlier this year, Cambria Harris, the daughter of one of the victims, filed two human-rights complaints – one against the PCs, over their election ads, and another against Wab Kinew’s NDP government, over its failure to allocate funding for the search. The PC Party “systemically discriminates” against Indigenous people and is “indifferent” to the violence they experience, the complaint stated.

Mr. Ewasko would not say whether the party has changed its position. “I know the family involved definitely wants to see some closure. And I think a lot of Canadians would want the same,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it at that.”

Meanwhile, he wants parents involved in “what is happening to their children in classrooms.”

He did not specifically answer questions about whether he is looking to Saskatchewan’s, New Brunswick’s and Alberta’s recent efforts to limit schools’ ability to teach about gender and sexuality or use children’s preferred pronouns without parental consent.

He said that, as a former educator, he has seen how “sometimes the students’ thoughts about how their parents or guardians are going to react to their LGBTQ+ identity were different than what the actual reality was.”

“I have to put an exclamation mark on the whole parental involvement” issue, he said. “I think that’s where we need to go.”

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