Manitobans are to make history today as they cast final ballots in an election that has followed four weeks of promises, debates and controversial advertisements.

If Heather Stefanson leads the incumbent Progressive Conservatives to a third consecutive majority, she would become the first woman to be elected premier in a Manitoba general election. Stefanson took over the top spot midterm in a party leadership race after former premier Brian Pallister retired in 2021.

If the New Democrats win after seven years in Opposition, leader Wab Kinew would become the first First Nations premier of a province in Canada. His late father was not allowed to vote as a young man under Canadian law at the time.

Opinion polls have suggested the New Democrats have a lead, especially in Winnipeg, where 32 of the 57 legislature seats are. Tory support dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospitals struggled to deal with rising case numbers and dozens of intensive-care patients were flown to other provinces.

The NDP, which won 18 seats in the last election, has made health care the central issue of their campaign. Kinew has promised to reopen three hospital emergency departments that were downgraded by the Tory government. He has been on offence throughout the campaign, holding press conferences in Tory-held areas and highlighting the local candidate.

"It's our belief that this is the number 1 issue in Manitoba that needs attention," Kinew said Monday at his last campaign press conference.

The NDP have made promises in other areas, such as more child-care spaces, a one-year freeze on hydroelectricity rates and a temporary suspension of the 14-cent-per-litre fuel tax until inflation subsides.

The Tories, who won 36 seats in the last election, have promised to hire more health-care workers and build hospital infrastructure.

They have also pledged major tax cuts to help people with inflation and to boost the economy. They have promised to reduce personal income taxes and phase out a tax that employers pay on their total annual payroll.

Stefanson has maintained a low profile at points during the campaign. She did not hold a news conference or media scrum in Winnipeg between Sept. 22 and the final day of the campaign Monday.

The Tories have taken out ads to portray the NDP as a risk to the economy and the province's finances. The Tories pointed to final budget figures released last week, which said the province recorded a surplus in the 2022-23 fiscal year for only the second time since 2009.

"We are the only party with a plan to pay for the necessary services that Manitobans rely on," Stefanson said Monday.

The Tories have gone on the offensive over calls to search the Prairie Green Landfill, a private operation north of Winnipeg, for the remains of two Indigenous women believed to have been killed and taken there last year. Police have charged a man with first-degree murder.

The Tories took out ads, including large billboards, promising they would "stand firm" in opposing a "landfill dig" due to safety concerns over asbestos and other toxic material. 

The ads were met with criticism from many quarters — Indigenous leaders, federal cabinet minister Marc Miller, and David McLaughlin, who managed Manitoba Tory campaigns under Pallister in 2016 and 2019.

Stefanson defended the ads. She said it was a hard decision to reject a search, but worker safety and avoiding the risk of cancer and other diseases was paramount. 

She pointed to a federally funded study that said a search is feasible but would require special measures to reduce the risk to searchers. It also said a search could take up to three years, cost up to $184 million and have no guarantee of success.

Kinew and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont have promised to have a search conducted.

Lamont is hoping to add to the three seats the Liberals hold in the legislature. Recent opinion polls suggest their support has dropped.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2023