“What a great night. The only thing better than tonight in Manitoba is tomorrow. Tomorrow all Manitobans are going to walk out into a beautiful spring morning and they’re going to look up and the sky is going to be blue.”
— Brian Pallister’s victory speech in Winnipeg last night.
That blue sky Progressive Conservative Premier-designate Brian Pallister was referring to could be a bit foggy, as today is 4/20, the annual celebration of the cannabis culture. It can draw hundreds of pot-smokers illegally (for now) lighting up on the front lawn of the Manitoba Legislature.
But many Manitoba socialists — especially the 21 NDP MLAs who are now out of work — might be dazed and confused today anyway, as their 16-year high was harshed by a historic Tory landslide win of 40 seats. The seismic political shift has the NDP reduced to 14 seats, and the Liberals increasing from one to three seats. (Results as of 4:40 a.m.)
The most seats the Tories ever had before was 36 back in 1962. The most any party claimed historically in Manitoba was 40, the Liberals in 1915.
One of the hottest races in the province was Brandon East, with incumbent cabinet minister Drew Caldwell trying to hang on to the seat he won in 1999 and that has been represented by the NDP since it was created in 1969.
Victor Len Isleifson ran a solid, clean campaign in Brandon East that was aided by volunteers from neighbouring safe PC Party seats, Spruce Woods, Arthur-Virden and Riding Mountain.
A lot of people outside of Brandon East would say they didn’t really know much about Isleifson. He was a one-term city councillor, who chose not to run in the 2014 campaign to prepare for this provincial tilt.
But when he was councillor for Riverview Ward on Brandon’s east side, he earned a reputation of answering calls and making sure residents’ concerns were taken care of. He was obviously well-liked in the constituency. And also he was a Tory at a time when the NDP was out of favour.
Before the Legislature was dissolved and the writ dropped on March 16, there were 35 New Dems, 19 Tories and one Liberal. There were also two vacant seats.
“This PC majority government will be in power for decades to come, because we are going to do amazing things for this province,” Isleifson said to packed hall at Seniors for Seniors on Park Avenue East. “We’re going to move forward and form investments in education in health care in children and in families.”
I asked Isleifson what Brandon projects he’ll be pushing for in the new Tory caucus. He said the new school in south Brandon is a definite priority, as is completing the move of Assiniboine Community College from Victoria Avenue to its new North Hill campus.
Shortly after, the man Isleifson defeated entered the hall. Many there weren’t sure if he would show up. And also weren’t sure what his mood would be like after CKLQ 880 tweeted out a quote from him at NDP HQ: “Just elected a man in Brandon East who made no commitments to Brandon.”
But at Isleifson’s victory party, Caldwell was humble and wished the winner well. “Enjoy it, enjoy it,” he said as he shook Isleifson’s hand.
Caldwell stayed around for quite a while in the room full of Tories, as he waited to do a live hit on CTV Winnipeg.
“Hey James, how are you doing, man,” Caldwell said when he spotted me at the Isleifson victory party. “You called it.”
In recent columns, and based on many polls, I had suggested the NDP was in for a huge shock and that voters in Brandon East had a very difficult decision to make: To have Tory Isleifson in a Pallister government, or to vote for the hard-working Caldwell, but have him sitting in Opposition.
I chatted with my friend of 30-odd years and asked him what he would do now, after being in public service most of his adult life.
Caldwell will receive a year’s salary as severance pay. He says he’s going to stay in Brandon after sorting out his second life in Winnipeg where he owns two houses.
What if he had won? And be spending his days in Opposition? I suggested to Caldwell that it would drive him crazy.
“Probably,” he said with a laugh. “But I would have a paycheque.”
Caldwell said he will take his time to review any opportunities that come his way.
I then drove across town to Brandon West Tory HQ, located in the former CKX-TV building.
When I walked in, I came across victorious Tory Reg Helwer chatting with Mayor Rick Chrest.
“Well,” I said to the pair, “you now truly have a real Team Brandon.”
And they laughed. But agreed that it would be a positive for the city.
I pulled Helwer aside and asked the man who had just won his second term — and took all of the polls in Brandon West — if he thought he would be asked to join the Pallister cabinet.
I knew what he was going to say, but figured I’d ask anyway.
“I’ll leave that to Brian Pallister, he’s the boss,” Helwer said.
I then asked him what areas he would be championing in the Tory caucus.
“I heard at the doors that people want to have jobs,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always delivered on for Brandon and Western Manitoba in my entire business career.”
Sounds like he would make a good minister of jobs and the economy (or whatever Pallister will rename that portfolio), and also be the de facto regional minister for Brandon and Westman.
But I digress.
“I think we have an opportunity now, with representatives from across the province, this is a government for Manitobans, not just a few people,” Helwer told me.
“We’re thrilled with Brandon East, there was a lot of hard work there. We brought in volunteers from all the successful constituencies (to help out).”
While I was in a side room talking with Helwer, a CBC reporter was interviewing the mayor.
“I do have a relationship with our new premier and a relationship with both of our MLAs, so I think we'll have a very strong opportunity to continue informed partnerships," he said.
Chrest said his relationship with premier-designate Pallister goes way back.
“Pallister did go to Brandon University and played basketball for the Brandon University Bobcats,” Chrest told CBC. “Another fun fact — he was my student teacher.”
And now, all of Manitoba will be schooled in Progressive Conservatism.
As for that weedfest on the north lawn of the Legislature today, Pallister has scheduled a media conference on the south side of the building. In fact, he’ll even be south of Assiniboine Avenue, which is about as far away that you could get from the 4/20 crowd while still having the Manitoba Legislature building as a backdrop.
Perhaps that’s a glimpse into Pallister’s view on the pot legalization issue. Something his new government will have to deal with as the feds push ahead with plans to legalize it.