Premier of Canadian province Manitoba will not seek re-election

FILE PHOTO: Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks to the press following the First Ministers' Meeting in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Premier Brian Pallister, leader of the Canadian province of Manitoba, said on Tuesday he will not seek re-election, amid waning popularity over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and for his government's inflamed relations with indigenous groups.

Pallister, 67, a former school teacher and member of Parliament, has served as premier for five years, winning consecutive majority governments.

The timing of Pallister's departure is unclear. The next election is expected in 2023.

"By stepping aside at the midpoint of our mandate, I believe this will provide sufficient time not only for party members to choose a new leader but for Manitobans to get to know the new leader," Pallister said in Brandon, Manitoba.

Pallister's Progressive Conservative government balanced Manitoba's budget for the first time in 11 years just before the pandemic hit last year, driving up fiscal deficits for provinces. His government cut taxes while initiating overhauls of the health and public education systems.

His handling of the pandemic generated criticism from doctors, however, for failing to tighten economic restrictions enough to prevent deadly waves of infection, which were at times the most severe in Canada.

Last month, Pallister denounced people who pulled down statues of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria in Winnipeg amid anger over the discoveries of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools where indigenous children once attended, and praised people who he said came to Canada to build up the country.

Indigenous leaders said the remarks downplayed the damage of colonialism, and Pallister's own indigenous relations minister resigned. Pallister later apologized for the remarks.

(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; editing by Richard Pullin)

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