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Heather Stefanson is sworn in as Manitoba's 24th premier at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Nov. 2, 2021.David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s new premier says she’s disappointed that her rival in the leadership for the province’s governing Progressive Conservatives is challenging the validity of the vote, but she says she’s turning her attention to managing COVID-19 in a province that became a deadly hot spot for infections earlier in the pandemic.

Complaints about the results of the weekend leadership vote and a subsequent legal challenge have overshadowed Heather Stefanson’s swearing-in as the province’s first female premier. The controversy threatens to be a distraction as the new premier works to turn around her party’s poor polling numbers and move past unpopular policies of her predecessor, Brian Pallister, including health care cuts that critics say left the province unable to respond to the pandemic.

Ms. Stefanson, who was Mr. Pallister’s deputy premier and was appointed health minister this past January, was elected leader of the Progressive Conservatives over the weekend and was sworn in on Tuesday. She won with a margin of fewer than 400 votes.

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Her rival, Shelly Glover, has refused to concede, citing problems with the leadership vote; Ms. Glover, a former Conservative MP and federal cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government, has been claiming that she is, in fact, the premier.

“I think her comments are disappointing and her actions are disappointing,” Ms. Stefanson told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

“I’m certainly going to be focused on bringing our party back together again.”

Ms. Glover has alleged in court documents that she was told how many ballots had been received before the count, but that the final results included a different number of total votes. In addition, some party members have complained they did not receive ballots in time, though that is not part of Ms. Glover’s case.

Her lawyer asked the Lieutenant-Governor to delay Ms. Stefanson’s swearing-in. Now, she wants a judge to force the party to hold another vote.

“I’ll abide by whatever decision comes out of a new vote, but the vote we just had was fraught with problems,” Ms. Glover said in an interview.

It’s not clear when her legal challenge will be heard.

The party has said the leadership vote was run independently and ballot counting was overseen by party auditors, as well as a scrutineer from each campaign.

With the legal challenge in the background, Ms. Stefanson must now appoint a new cabinet before the legislature reconvenes with a Throne Speech on Nov. 23.

She promised during the leadership race to strengthen the health care system, which struggled during earlier waves of the pandemic. Manitoba had among the highest infection rates during the second wave last fall and again during the third wave in May. This past spring, health officials sent intensive-care patients to hospitals in other provinces.

The premier defended sending patients to other provinces, saying it was based on “clinical decisions,” and she brushed aside the suggestion that intensive-care units were full because of the government’s failure to control infections through public-health measures.

“We certainly made decisions based on the best information that we had at any given time; there is no playbook for COVID,” she said.

“Should we have done things sooner? With the benefit of hindsight, maybe we should have acted sooner in some cases, but you have to have buy-in from the public. … There’s obviously a balance that needs to take place.”

Ms. Stefanson said she is also awaiting a briefing about the current COVID-19 situation as she decides whether public-health measures, including travel restrictions, limits on gatherings and mandatory masks, need to be extended or changed. She said those decisions will be made after consulting health officials and her cabinet, and after considering the impact on businesses.

She said the province’s vaccine passport system, which was among the first in the country, is helping businesses and will remain in place “for the next short while.”

Manitoba’s per-capita infection rates are lower than hot spots such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, but while COVID-19 cases are declining in those provinces, they are increasing in Manitoba. The province is averaging about 185 new cases a day, more than double the rate two weeks ago.

“I think Manitobans don’t want to go back to where it was before,” she said, referring to the high infection rates during previous waves.

The Leader of the province’s Opposition New Democrats, Wab Kinew, said Manitobans should be skeptical that Ms. Stefanson will be any different than her predecessor.

He said the new premier was just as involved in cuts to health care and mismanaging the pandemic, even before she was health minister, as Mr. Pallister. He said it’s not convincing for her to be promising to change course now.

“If the problems in our health care system were so demanding of urgent attention, why didn’t she attend to them while she was the health minister?” he said.

“Heather Stefanson was the deputy premier and was at the cabinet table when all those decisions that made our pandemic outcomes worse were taken.”

Mr. Kinew said Manitobans suffered during those earlier waves because the government, including Mr. Stefanson, ignored the advice of health experts.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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