Although Wab Kinew continues to reiterate that he’s not out to make history for his ethnicity as Manitoba’s first Anishinaabe premier, there’s no denying that his community and cultural ties will bring something new to the premier’s office.
Wabanakwut Kinew, 41, is from Onigaming First Nation in Ontario — part of Treaty 3 territory, which spans parts of northwestern Ontario and southeastern Manitoba. His first name translates to “grey cloud” and his last to “golden eagle” in the Anishinaabe language.
Kinew’s major win in Tuesday’s provincial election came at a momentous milestone for his home territory, as Manitobans elected their first Anishinaabe premier exactly 150 years after Treaty 3 was signed at the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods on Oct. 3, 1873.
“I was given a second chance in life, and I would like to think that I’ve made good on that opportunity,” Kinew said in his Tuesday victory speech.
On Wednesday, Kinew said the election was about fixing health care and rejecting division, repeating a message he sent throughout the campaign that being a First Nations person does not add more load to the premier’s role, and that his mission is to serve all Manitobans.
“I didn’t run on being the first First Nations premier, I put my name on the ballot to try and be the best premier,” he said.
“I don’t know how much more weight you could put on somebody. This is the most difficult thing that I’ve ever done in my life, and the real work hasn’t even begun yet.”
The story behind Kinew’s second chance is detailed in his 2015 memoir, The Reason You Walk, when Kinew was made a sun dance ceremonial chief and given a treaty medal that featured two shaking hands — one Indigenous and one non-Indigenous, signifying the treaty relationship.
“I was surprised by how heavy the medal was in my hands,” wrote Kinew.
While he had been primed by his family to pursue a life in leadership, Kinew wrote that he expected that role to come after he had achieved something great.
Instead, his initiation as a sun dance chief came during one of the lowest points of his life, following assault and impaired driving convictions in the early 2000s, which he later received pardons for.
The book did not mention two domestic assault charges Kinew had faced in 2003 involving his girlfriend at the time. Those charges were stayed several months later and Kinew has consistently denied that he ever assaulted his former girlfriend.
In 2017, CBC News also discovered discrepancies between the book’s account of Kinew’s 2004 assault on a Winnipeg taxi driver and court records. Kinew responded by saying that he was wrong and had taken responsibility.
In the memoir, Kinew did apologize for his past behaviour, including misogynistic rap lyrics, saying he was a troubled young person dealing with unresolved intergenerational trauma.
His father, Tobasonakwut Kinew, was a residential school survivor and a prominent political and spiritual leader who shared the importance of preserving the Anishinaabe culture and language. His mother, Kathi Avery Kinew, worked as a policy analyst.
FROM THE ARCHIVES | Wab Kinew examines intergenerational trauma:
Surviving the Survivor
Featured VideoFor many Canadians it is hard to understand how the residential school system is still having an impact on the aboriginal community 2 and 3 generations later. CBC Reporter Wab Kinew takes his own father back to the site of his former residential school
Journalist, rapper, academic
Kinew has worn many hats before he first stepped into the Manitoba Legislature in 2016. The NDP leader was a journalist, rapper and the first director of Indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg before stepping into politics.
He received his education in Winnipeg, after moving there as a child for elementary school, and holds university degrees in economics and Indigenous governance.
Kinew got his foot in the door at CBC in December 2005, after a producer read a letter he wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press about Team Canada picking Vancouver Canuck Todd Bertuzzi to play at the Winter Olympics, a move that sparked controversy because of the athlete’s criminal record.
“The letter that Wab wrote to the Free Press [said]: ‘Look, I’m a person with a record, when do you get a second chance?'” recalled Janice Moeller, who recently retired as CBC Manitoba’s senior producer of audio.
“It was interesting, so I said we should bring him in, have him record this and air it as a commentary,” she said.
Kinew became a rising star at the public broadcaster, reporting and hosting for radio and televisions shows both locally and nationally. “I think he has an ability to listen and look at all sides,” said Moeller.
“It was really quite moving for me on election night, to hear his victory speech talk about second chances, because that is what that letter was about — when do people get that and who deserves that,” she said.
“It just shows what you can accomplish if you get one.”
Kinew took leadership of the Manitoba NDP in 2017, a year after his election as the MLA for Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge riding. That election, his party lost its bid to secure a fifth consecutive majority government and the Progressive Conservatives came into power for the first time in just over two decades.
One of the defining moments of Kinew’s time as Opposition leader came in July 2021, when he challenged the PC’s new minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations in the legislature for defending residential schools.
WATCH | Kinew confronts freshly-sworn in cabinet minister:
Manitoba’s new Indigenous reconciliation minister called out for residential school comments
Featured VideoOn his first day as Manitoba’s new Indigenous reconciliation and northern affairs minister, Alan Lagimodiere was publicly taken to task by Opposition leader Wab Kinew for saying that those who once ran residential schools thought they were ‘doing the right thing.’
The following September, the NDP succeeded in delaying Bill 64, a controversial education reform bill, as well as four other pieces of legislation, leading the governing PCs to scrap them.
The party has not had many other major legislative victories under Kinew before his election as premier, as it had been in Opposition since 2016.
‘A really effective leader’
Lloyd Axworthy, a former federal Liberal cabinet minister and president of the University of Winnipeg, met Kinew through his father, who worked as an elder and professor at the institution.
Axworthy’s advice to anyone not familiar with Kinew is to watch and listen. He says the NDP leader will bring a fresh voice to the province and the country.
“I’m quite convinced, having worked with him, that he’s got the capacity to be a really effective leader.”
Kinew was part of a team that helped raise money for programs and scholarship funds for inner city students during his time as the university’s director of Indigenous inclusion, said Axworthy.
“He made a major contribution to some of the opportunities for young people in the inner city, and he helped the university to redefine itself, and I think that showed real leadership.”
The veteran Liberal wrote a letter in early September to throw his support behind Kinew and speak to his character during the provincial election campaign, as he disagreed with the Progressive Conservatives bringing up the NDP leader’s criminal past and not his community contributions.
“His past was what motivated him, because he wanted to see that that path would be a driver for what he could do in the future.”
Axworthy said Kinew’s election was a testament to Manitobans, who “didn’t buy into that kind of negative agenda.”
Gabriel Ricardo Nemogá Soto says he thought of Kinew becoming a major leader long before Tuesday’s provincial election. The Indigenous governance professor at the University of Winnipeg was Kinew’s thesis supervisor when he was a student in the master’s program.
“At the University of Winnipeg, I had the chance to recognize a very integral leader,” said Nemogá. Kinew’s 2019 thesis, “Aanakanootandaa Anishinaabemowin: Let’s Translate the Ojibwe Language,” examined how to translate the Anishinaabe language using technology.
“He is a person who takes challenges, is able to overcome barriers and is able to move in difficult situations. I think the fact that Kinew is First Nations, but he’s also ingrained in the culture of this society, gives him skills that very few individuals have.”
Nemogá, a descendent of the Muisca Indigenous people of Colombia, has two sons who are First Nations, and he said “having the chance for my kids to see that this is possible, I think it’s a very good lesson, like it replaced many words that I could tell them.”
However, Nemogá cautions people not to be over-optimistic about Kinew’s premiership.
“We enjoy and we celebrate that this happened, but be patient and be very attentive to what is going to happen, because a new alternative will need support if we want to make it happen.”