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Heather Stefanson speaks to the media after being sworn in as Manitoba's 24th premier at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Nov. 2.David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson is promising to improve health care, offer more help to people hurt by COVID-19 and further distance herself from her predecessor.

The Progressive Conservative government laid out its plans for the coming year Tuesday in a throne speech – the first one since Stefanson took over the premier’s chair from Brian Pallister, who resigned in September after months of low polling numbers.

The speech contained several promises to consult people more often. Stefanson said the government is becoming more “humanitarian.”

“What I’m hearing from Manitobans is they want a departure from maybe the style and the way things were done in the past,” Stefanson told reporters.

“There have been many good things that have been done that we can build on but I think there’s a better way to do things and a more collaborative way to do things.”

The throne speech promises 400 new nurse training positions with a practical nursing program for up to 20 students in the north. There are also promises to come up with a strategy to help seniors stay in their homes longer and to develop a plan to tackle homelessness.

The speech reiterates an earlier promise to set up a group that would include health-care workers to help tackle a backlog in surgeries caused by COVID-19.

The throne speech says a new effort will be made to improve education. The Tories have already killed Pallister’s plan to eliminate elected school boards.

The speech also says previous plans to reform rural health care will be re-examined to ensure equitable access.

The government is also promising to consult on how to fund colleges and universities. Pallister had intended to make financial support performance-based, but that ran into widespread opposition.

“We will re-engage with the institutions to discuss how the proposed funding formula can encourage the desired outcomes,” said the speech, read in the chamber by Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon.

The opposition parties said the throne speech was long on vague promises and short on action.

“All governments should be listening to their citizens, but while we’re … doing that, things are getting worse here in Manitoba,” NDP house leader Nahanni Fontaine said.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the government has had plenty of time to develop a plan to reduce the surgery backlog.

“That backlog has been growing by 1,000 procedures and tests every single week … this is a crisis,” he said.

The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals said staff shortages need to be addressed immediately.

“Manitobans won’t get to the emergency room without paramedics, and those ERs won’t be open unless there are enough technologists to analyze the blood work or take X-rays,” said association president Bob Moroz.

The throne speech led off an eight-day fall legislature sitting with only some politicians in the chamber. Others will take part via video conference.

Two members – NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Tory Doyle Piwniuk – will not be in the chamber after testing positive for COVID-19. Both said they are double-vaccinated and are self-isolating.

Kinew said Monday he was experiencing mild symptoms. Piwniuk said Tuesday he felt fine.

“I was informed by a friend that he had contracted COVID-19. I had myself tested and it came back positive,” Piwniuk said in a prepared statement.

“My family has tested negative and they are feeling fine. I am double-vaccinated and not feeling any symptoms of the virus.”

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