Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson pledged earlier this week to provide $7.5 million to an arts organization chaired by her own deputy minister.
On Wednesday, Stefanson announced $7.5 million in funding for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to help it complete a $30-million expansion.
“Our government is proud to support Manitoba’s vibrant arts and culture sector and as we emerge from this pandemic together,” the premier said on Wednesday in her first new funding commitment after the end of the Fort Whyte byelection blackout on new government announcements.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s board of directors is chaired by Don Leitch, who is Stefanson’s deputy minister, the secretary of the provincial cabinet and Manitoba’s most powerful public servant.
Former interim premier Kelvin Goertzen appointed Leitch to the position of clerk of the executive council on Oct. 31, the day after Stefanson won the Progressive Conservative Party leadership race. Stefanson officially became first on Nov. 2.
Leitch, who had previously served as clerk under former premier Gary Filmon, replaced David McLaughlin, who was former premier Brian Pallister’s appointee to the powerful position.
The clerk has a broad range of powers, including oversight of Manitoba’s public service.
Stefanson’s office said Leitch originally requested a contribution to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s campus expansion when the ballet filed an application two years ago.
After his reappointment to the role of clerk of the executive council, Leitch declared his conflict of interest to the government, Stefanson’s office said.
“In that declaration, he indicated he had involvement with requests to both the federal and provincial governments for contributions to the RWB modernization project,” Stefanson’s office said.
The premier’s office said the Royal Winnipeg Ballet request “was consistent with government funding for other significant projects” such as the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Qaumajuq expansion, the Leaf project at Assiniboine Park and the Western Canadian Aviation Museum’s new building at Richardson International Airport.
“That formula involves the federal and provincial governments providing contributions to match private-sector donations,” the premier’s office said.
University of Manitoba political scientist Paul Thomas said Leitch has an honorable reputation and decades of distinguished service inside and outside government.
Thomas also said due to Leitch’s long association with the Progressive Conservative Party, he would not have to exert much influence.
“He’s one of the clerks who has come from a partisan background,” Thomas said.
“He’s so close to Stefanson and the center of his circle of influence, I’m not sure how much lobbying he would have to do.”
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said Leitch should not be on any boards.
“The RWB is a very worthy organization that deserves funding. However, that is true of many arts organizations and artists who received nothing from this government, not least $7.5 million,” Lamont said.
“This is a major problem with the Manitoba government under the PCs. It is government by clique. If you’re in, you’re in, and you get money for whatever pet project you want, but if you’re not a donor or a crony, you’ll be starved out.”
The NDP expressed a similar sentiment.
“Any kind of conflict — even the perception of one — erodes Manitobans’ confidence that government funding will be spent fairly,” public affairs critic Malaya Marcelino said.
The ballet’s campus expansion includes a new student living center and infrastructure enhancements across the organization’s facilities. The ballet has already built a new student residence at a cost of $15 million.
It sold its old residence, which occupied a parcel of land that is now part of the True North Square development.
Royal Winnipeg Ballet CEO André Lewis praised Leitch for his support.
“As an organization, we appreciate the support that Don has given the RWB along with many other organizations over his career,” Lewis said.