One of the first Black people elected to serve as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba has again made history, becoming the first Black person appointed to a cabinet position in the province.
Southdale MLA Audrey Gordon will split the Health portfolio, previously held by Cameron Friesen, with former Families Minister Heather Stefanson following a cabinet shuffle Tuesday.
Gordon leads the newly created department of Department of Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery.
The first-term Progressive Conservative MLA, who was born in Jamaica and moved to Manitoba as a child, said she is “honoured and humbled” to be Manitoba’s first Black cabinet minister, and that she stands “on the shoulders” of many others in Winnipeg’s Black community.
But Gordon said the significance of the moment didn’t occur to her until she was driving home Monday evening, prior to the official announcement.
“It wasn’t until I was maybe two minutes from home that it struck me that we were going to, as a community, achieve such an amazing milestone and goal,” she said.
Although he acknowledged the historic nature of Gordon’s appointment, Premier Brian Pallister said it had nothing to do with her race.
“She has demonstrated her abilities over 20 years of public service in the civil service, coming to Manitoba with really nothing as a young girl, working her way through school, getting an education,” Pallister said Tuesday.
“She’s a dynamic person. It’s a really positive story of accomplishment and she’s an inspirational person.”
Gordon said she has worked with many different groups, including newcomers from war-torn countries suffering from trauma, as well as First Nations and Indigenous people. Prior to being elected, she also worked as a director with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s home care program.
“What’s prepared me [for the cabinet position] is that I’m a human being and I’ve spent a lot of time at the grass roots working with many different populations,” she said.
COVID-19 and mental health
Given the challenges many people are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pallister said now was the right time to create a dedicated mental health department.
“I don’t think you can think of a time that it would be more important than now to really focus on making sure we’re expanding the quality and capability of the services that we’re offering to people who are vulnerable,” he said.
Gordon was one of a trio of Black MLAs elected in the 2019 provincial election, along with NDP members Uzoma Asagwara in Union Station and Jamie Moses in St. Vital.
They were the first Black people to win seats in the province’s legislature.
Gordon ran against Wab Kinew in Fort Rouge in 2016, but lost to the future Manitoba NDP leader.
She said her first priority in her new role would be getting the department up and running, beginning with briefings starting on Tuesday, and reaching out to community stakeholders.
Gordon recently drew criticism on social media after Springs Church, of which she is a member, held drive-in services, despite public health orders forbidding large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was accused online of remaining silent on the issue.
On Tuesday, Gordon said she did not attend the services, and said she was pleased with the outcome of a court ruling last month in which a judge rejected the church’s claim that the health orders were a violation of constitutional rights.
“I just think it’s time for all Manitobans to pull together and to respect those orders,” Gordon said Tuesday. “The sooner we can flatten the curve the sooner we can get back to connecting with our families and our friends.”
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