Jillian Horton is a Winnipeg-based physician and the author of We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing.
Manitoba is a province I can’t readily explain to people who have never been here. Our boasted attractions include a giant chair, a huge pipe and one massive psychedelic mushroom. But my favourite endearingly bizarre landmark is an image tattooed on the psychological heart of anyone who has ever called our capital city home. In Winnipeg’s old Exchange District, on an avenue named for the Pioneers, there is a building that was once home to a nut-and-candy factory. The wall is painted with a disconcerting portrait of a grinning man made of candy cane known as Can-D-Man, who appears to be the commander-in-chief of the Nutty Club.
That Nutty Club mural is just a short walk from the wards of Winnipeg’s two largest hospitals, which have descended into a state of dysfunction never before seen in most of our lifetimes. Our ICUs have been in a dire state for weeks now, although you wouldn’t have known it from listening to our provincial leaders.
The day after senior officials finally asked for the tiniest possible amount of federal help in the form of 15 to 30 ICU nurses, Premier Heather Stefanson – who, when asked if she could have done more against COVID-19, dismissively replied, “coulda, shoulda, woulda” – was seen mugging for the cameras at the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup festivities. On Tuesday, facing growing backlash and a slew of politically inconvenient frontline narratives, Ms. Stefanson suggested that the absurdly belated deployment of rapid test kits could substitute for the enforcement and containment measures that she and the rest of her entourage seem unwilling to enact, apparently concerned about the reaction from their base.
Gallingly, Ms. Stefanson said with a solemn face on Tuesday that she will “always do whatever it takes to ensure that patient safety comes first” – unless, of course, those patients happen to be in personal care homes.
What does Ms. Stefanson have in common with her frontbench advisers, Health Minister Audrey Gordon and Justice Minister Cameron Friesen? As current or former provincial health ministers, they are the veritable ghosts of pandemic health care past, present and future. Mr. Friesen has managed the enforcement of necessary public health orders with about as much leadership as a hood ornament. In a recent interview, when asked to comment on large, clandestine religious gatherings taking place in his own riding in defiance of provincial health measures, he tried to assuage his base, adding to his weak warnings that “we’re also trying to send the message that we know how important it is for people to gather to meet their spiritual needs.” This, as unvaccinated and advisory-defying Manitobans help drive the spread of COVID-19, contributing disproportionately to a grotesque health care backlog that, according to a tracker from Doctors Manitoba, is now more than 150,000 surgeries and procedures deep.
It is hard to believe that this motley crew comes from the same party that gave us Duff Roblin, the province’s premier from 1958 to 1967. He is fondly remembered by Manitobans every time we cross the perimeter highway and drive over the forward-thinking Red River Floodway, better known as “Duff’s Ditch” – a massive piece of provincial infrastructure that was widely mocked when it was built, but has reportedly saved Manitobans at least $40-billion in flood-related costs since its creation. No, Mr. Roblin didn’t have to contend with anti-vaxxers and an online campaign of disinformation, but he did face an enormous struggle to think beyond his own trivial political fortunes and do the right thing, based on the wise counsel of engineers and scientists.
It’s impossible not to contrast his legacy with that of today’s Progressive Conservative government. If Mr. Roblin had sniffed, as Ms. Stefanson does today, that no one can “predict the future,” Winnipeg would still be under an annual threat from floods, and that old Nutty Club banner would have washed away long ago.
And so, here we are – again, and again and again. There is no leadership, no plan, no hope. And it turns out that in Winnipeg, the writing has literally been on the wall – it was just at the wrong address. The Nutty Club mural doesn’t belong on Pioneer Avenue; it belongs at the Manitoba Legislature, on the wall of the Office of the Premier, commemorating a government that doesn’t even pretend to give a damn about what is already here and coming next. That just might be the nuttiest thing in the history of this province. And mark my words: It is about to get even nuttier.
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