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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson speaks to media prior to the reading of the speech from the throne at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on Nov. 23, 2021.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson added a third health minister to her inner circle Tuesday and made changes to most other major positions in her first cabinet shuffle since she took office in November.

Stefanson promoted Scott Johnston from the backbenches to become minister of a new separate portfolio for seniors and long-term care. He joins Audrey Gordon, who retains responsibility for acute health care, and Sarah Guillemard, who moves from conservation to become minister for mental health and community wellness.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve seen where it has been very challenging for seniors in Manitoba and we need to start focusing and emphasizing on that,” Stefanson said.

Three other backbenchers were promoted to cabinet including Eileen Clarke, who resigned as Indigenous relations minister last year under former premier Brian Pallister.

Clarke left over comments Pallister made about protesters who tore down statues on the legislature lawn. She said at the time that many voices in the caucus were not being heard.

Clarke said Tuesday that is not the case under Stefanson.

“That changed 100 per cent the day this premier took office,” said Clarke, who was named municipal relations minister.

“We had a caucus meeting following and ... it was rewarding just to be a part of it, to be there and know we all had a voice and that we were all going to be working as a team.”

The other promoted backbenchers are Andrew Smith to sport, culture and heritage, and Doyle Piwniuk as minister of transportation and infrastructure.

Two people are out of cabinet – Cathy Cox, who was sport, culture and heritage minister, and Ralph Eichler who headed up agriculture.

Several other ministers have changed portfolios.

Kelvin Goertzen moves from parliamentary affairs to justice. Cameron Friesen moves from justice to finance.

Scott Fielding moves from finance to natural resources and northern development. Stefanson said the move is not a demotion.

“It’s not at all. What’s so exciting is that this is sending a message that we want to work with Indigenous partners on moving forward and getting jobs and hope and opportunity for Indigenous Manitobans,” she said.

“It’s going to be a really exciting portfolio, I think, for Mr. Fielding.”

The Progressive Conservative government lags well behind the Opposition New Democrats in opinion polls and faces heavy criticism over its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have jumped in Manitoba and the number of patients in intensive care is well above pre-pandemic normal capacity. Federal statistics show Manitoba has recorded the second-highest per-capita death rate from the infection among all provinces.

The New Democrats said changing the cabinet lineup won’t make much of a difference. Three people who had served as health ministers earlier in the pandemic, including Stefanson, remain in cabinet in other roles.

“As far as I can see, all the failed health ministers of the past still have a job in this cabinet,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

The four new ministers are split evenly between rural Tory strongholds and suburban Winnipeg seats. One political analyst said the choice to promote Smith and Johnston in the suburban seats could be a sign that the Tories think those seats are vulnerable in the election set for October 2023.

“You want to reinforce your strength and perhaps support some (politicians) who are in potential swing ridings at the next election,” said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

“That undoubtedly was a major consideration in some of the moves (Stefanson) made today.”

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