Manitoba's governing Progressive Conservatives held on to one of their longtime strongholds by a narrow margin in a provincial byelection Tuesday.
Voters in the Fort Whyte constituency in Winnipeg elected Obby Khan, a restaurant owner and former professional football player. It was a nail-biter race, with Khan beating Liberal candidate Willard Reaves by 197 votes in unofficial results.
Khan acknowledged the close result was a signal to the government.
"The message is loud and clear, that we have some work to do," Khan said.
"People want to get out of the pandemic. People are looking forward to moving forward. People are concerned about our medical and diagnostic backlogs."
Premier Heather Stefanson agreed.
"I think we have a lot of work to do ahead in many different areas ... we're going to work with Manitobans towards the next election, do everything we can to earn their trust."
The seat has been solidly Tory since its creation in 1999, and until Tuesday, had always given the Tories more than 50 per cent of the vote. Khan received 42 per cent of the unofficial results.
It was the first byelection under Stefanson's leadership — she succeeded former premier Brian Pallister last fall — and came at a time when government support has dropped sharply in opinion polls due to its handing of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manitoba has had the second-highest per-capita pandemic death rate behind Quebec, data compiled by the federal government indicates. During a spike in cases last spring, dozens of intensive care patients were sent to other provinces to free up bed space.
Stefanson, a former health minister, was criticized by some health professionals for easing public health orders while intensive care units were still running well above normal capacity.
Last week, she was asked in the legislature about the death of a COVID-19 patient, but began her response by congratulating her son's hockey team for winning a provincial championship. She later apologized.
The byelection result should be a wake-up call for the government with a provincial election scheduled for October of next year, according to one political analyst.
"I think it's embarrassing for the government," said Royce Koop, who teaches political studies at the University of Manitoba.
"And I think it should probably lead to some reflection and some recalibration on the part of the government at this point."
Khan's win means the Tories maintain a strong majority with 36 of 57 legislature seats.
Reaves, also a former football player, was neck-and-neck with Khan at various points as the votes were reported.
"We were (in) an uphill battle ... and came out really well," Reaves said.
A win would have given the Liberals a fourth legislature seat — enough for official party status and extra funding that comes with the designation.
Trudy Schroeder, a former executive director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, came in a distant third for the Opposition New Democrats.
Written by Steve Lambert. This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2022.