The New Democrats had an early lead in several key constituencies in Manitoba's historic election Tuesday, while the Progressive Conservatives were ahead in rural areas and the Liberal leader resigned after losing his seat. 

The NDP were ahead in many areas of Winnipeg, including key ridings that had been held by members of the Progressive Conservative cabinet. The provincial capital, where 32 of the 57 legislature seats are, was considered an important battleground for both parties.

Manitobans were poised to make history whatever the outcome.

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. She took over the top spot mid-term in a party leadership race after former premier Brian Pallister retired in 2021.

If the New Democrats win after seven years in Opposition, 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. Kinew was re-elected as the legislature member for Fort Rouge in Winnipeg. 

Former NDP cabinet minister Gord Mackintosh, who retired in 2016, said the New Democrats ran a disciplined campaign. 

“The NDP campaign has been very sure-footed and really sympathetic to, I think, the key issues Manitobans are grappling with,” he said from NDP election headquarters.

The Progressive Conservatives saw an early win with longtime Tory minister Kelvin Goertzen holding his seat in Steinbach, but cabinet colleague Rochelle Squires was defeated. 

During the campaign, the Tories went on the offensive over calls to search the private Prairie Green Landfill north of Winnipeg for the remains of two slain Indigenous women.

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

The ads were met with criticism from many quarters, including Indigenous leaders, but Stefanson defended the move. She said it was a hard decision but worker safety and avoiding the risk of cancer and other diseases was paramount. 

Stefanson 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, and she did not invite reporters to see her cast a ballot Tuesday.

The Tories also took out ads to portray the NDP as a risk to the economy and the province's finances. They 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.

Progressive Conservative campaign manager Marni Larkin said it’s been a long, hard campaign. 

“I’ve never experienced an election that’s been so aggressive at the door, on the ground… this is an all-out war."  

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont was hoping to add to the three seats the Liberals last held in the legislature but were reduced to one. 

Lamont was defeated in St. Boniface and resigned as party leader. 

“I will say, I always knew this was a possibility, but we had to hope beyond hope and keep working and do everything we could to run the best possible campaign we could, and we did, and I'm incredibly proud of that," he said. 

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

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

The NDP, which won 18 seats in the last election, made health care the central issue of its campaign. Kinew promised to reopen three hospital emergency departments that were downgraded by the Tory government.

He was on offence throughout the campaign, holding press conferences in Tory-held areas and highlighting the local candidate.

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