Howard A. Doughty
On October 18, 2023, Wabanakwut (“Wab”) Kinew made some history. He was sworn in as the 25th premier of Manitoba. He had been elected as a New Democratic Party member of Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly for Fort Rouge in 2016 at age 35. He became provincial NDP leader a year later. After six years as Leader of the Opposition, he won a decisive majority government in Manitoba’s most recent provincial election.
He will make more history soon if he succeeds with his promise to bestow the title of “Honourary Premier” upon Louis Riel, the leader of the Red River and the North-West “rebellions” in defence of Indigenous rights, who was hanged for “treason” in 1885. If naught else, Wab Kinew is true to his roots. There are at least three other aspects of Kinew’s success that qualify as inspirational for anyone optimistic about the future of individual redemption, collective reconciliation, and political restoration.
Born in Kenora, Ontario, Wab is the son of Dr. Kathi Avery Kinew, a policy analyst, and Tobasonakwut Kinew, a former local and regional chief of the Onigaming First Nations tribe and Professor of Indigenous Governance at the University of Winnipeg. His résumé is varied. He attended a French immersion school and graduated from a fine private high school in Winnipeg before earning a degree in economics at the University of Manitoba. A CBC musician, program host, and reporter on both radio and television, he was also appointed Associate Vice-President of Indigenous Relations at the University of Manitoba. He possesses an honourary doctorate from the University of Cape Breton.
Wab Kinew left home at age 19. He has battled recurrent problems with alcohol and has been convicted of impaired driving. He has been charged — falsely, he insists — with domestic violence. The charges were stayed. He was further convicted of assault on a taxi driver and, later, arrested for theft, a charge that was also stayed when he made restitution. He also ran into trouble when misogynistic and homophobic lyrics were revealed in his hip hop songs (for which he subsequently apologized).
Kinew’s story could easily have turned out poorly. His advantageous “middle-class” background must be balanced against the structural racism that he endured in suburban Winnipeg. That he nevertheless strived and succeeded is ample testimony to both character and circumstance. His personal story is revealed in his memoir, The Reason You Walk. It is one of four books he has written. It was praised by The Globe and Mail as “not just a memoir [but] a meditation on the purpose of living.” We can use more of that.
Wab Kinew’s eloquent expression of commitment to aboriginal issues should win support also among non-Native Canadians, not only because he is a gifted speaker and writer, but also because he is not a single-issue political leader. His stated ideals are both particular and universal. They are neither rancorous nor rooted in hate. Non-aboriginal Canadians have become increasingly aware of and seemingly more sympathetic to the plight of Indigenous peoples. Considerable progress has been made in terms of recognizing the proper place of Canada’s founding populations.
Premier Kinew has made it plain that it is possible to be inclusive, by bringing Indigenous issues to light, pressing for structural reform, and by offering a governmental platform that emphasizes the well-being and interests of all citizens. So, while not shying away from Indigeneity, Kinew’s campaign for office was based on the common interests (most notably an improved and irreversibly public healthcare system).
It is no secret that this is a bad time for good news. We are beset with a global “polycrisis.” It’s a far scarier concept than, say, Meadows’ Limits to Growth, which, fifty years ago, gave us the news that industrialization was cancerous, earthly resources were finite, and one day soon we’d face the consequences. We are confronting the catastrophic potential of climate change, ecological degradation, nuclear arms proliferation, democratic degradation, dehumanizing digitization, and a new illiteracy that eviscerates words such as reason and science of their meanings, in a world combining algorithmic decision-making and populist braggadocio.
It was telling that the opposition campaign by the previous government’s leaders chose to focus not on Kinew’s policy proposals on serious social issues. Instead, it appeared to take advice from actively divisive campaigns that are elsewhere bringing political life into disrepute. The outgoing party not only undertook to attack what are stupidly called “woke” issues. It relentlessly attacked Kinew personally not for the man he has become, but for the man he might have been.
Partisan preferences aside, Wab Kinew should have the goodwill of all Canadians at his back. I have no idea what kind of leader he will prove himself to be. But frankly, I am less concerned with individual politicians than with the state of politics itself. Our collective fate now seems more hazardous than at any time in recent memory.
If civility, decency, and courage will be made political virtues once again, we must start somewhere. Why not in Manitoba?