Wab Kinew and the rocky political road to becoming the first Anishinaabe premier of a province in Canada

Right out of the gate, Wab Kinew was seen as a rising star and potential future leader of the Manitoba New Democrats.

But before even being elected, there were tough questions about his past.

In 2016, the former rapper and broadcaster was running for the NDP in Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge riding against then-Manitoba Liberal Party leader, Rana Bokhari. The Liberal’s Indigenous caucus called for Kinew to remove himself from the race over past tweets and lyrics.

Kinew didn’t step aside and apologized again that day for his lyrics and tweets, something he had done before.

Over the last eight years, Kinew’s past has continued to come up, including the recent provincial vote that saw him elected premier of Manitoba.

“I never feel sorry for myself, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for politicians to make it about themselves,” says Kinew on Face to Face. “It’s not about us, it’s not about me.

“It’s about the people, the public, who deserve to have good public servants working for them on their behalf, but also the public – you the people – deserve to ask tough questions of the people running for office.

“I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs and moments of being held accountable over the years,” the rookie premier added, “but my attitude is just to show up, answer the questions, and then try to talk to people about what I want to do to make things better and make things more positive in the future.”

Kinew referenced his story of redemption in his election night victory speech.

He spoke to young people – “young neechies in particular” – who want to change their lives for the better and the need for them to take agency over making that change possible.

“I’ve had many non-Indigenous people, people who come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t vote for you, I’m a Conservative but your message on that night about agency and people taking control over their own lives is what our province needs’,” says Kinew.

“One of the first places I went after the election was to Pimicikamak, to Cross Lake (First Nation)  and we met tons of great people that day, tons of kids at the schools and people at the health centre. But I was really moved when a group of teachers, women who’d grown up in Pimicikamak, had the message from the speech printed and they wanted me to sign it for their students.

“So, to see people from the community who are trying to make a change for the kids in the community say that that’s a message that going to help them do their work, (that was) very, very meaningful for me.”

The former rapper, broadcaster and university administrator wasn’t always interested in public life. His first dream was to play in the NHL.

Then, roughly a decade ago, he kicked the tires on a possible run for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Kinew jokes that the people he asked to be on his campaign team at the time said ‘No’ so he decided not to run.

A few years later, two events left him feeling like he had more to give.

“I think that the death of Tina Fontaine was a big moment for me personally,” says Kinew who was an administrator at the University of Winnipeg at the time. “Very tragically, the back of our building was one of the last places Tina Fontaine was seen alive and we didn’t know it at the time but in the aftermath, we saw her on the security camera within a short while before she went missing.

“As all of that came clear and we were organizing the march and vigil that followed, I asked myself – I’m someone who’s got a ton of opportunity, I’m very lucky in my life – ‘Am I doing everything that I can to prevent something like that from happening?’ and the answer was ‘No’.”

Around the same time, Kinew’s father passed away from cancer. Health care was a big factor in his father’s final year and Kinew saw palliative care and cancer care people doing incredible work. His spouse is an Anishinaabe family physician and Kinew says he asked himself, ‘Am I giving it my all in this other area that I’m so super passionate about, health care, and again the answer was ‘No.’”

A little more than a year after first being elected an MLA, Kinew was chosen to lead the party. Heading into the October 2023 election, his past was once again front and centre in the campaign.

Kinew says people putting their names on the ballot know what they’re signing up for. But he didn’t like people who were not in politics being brought into the fray.

The Manitoba Progressive Conservative party took out newspaper ads and billboards to campaign on the decision not to search Winnipeg area landfills for Indigenous women believed to have been disposed of by an alleged serial killer.

It was a campaign move that even some in the party have criticized, but only after the election. Looking back, Kinew acknowledges it was a “pretty rough campaign, in terms of, to speak frankly, you’re bringing the families of murder victims into an attack ad or a political campaign ad. That’s not right. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, I think we can all agree about that.”

Shortly after being sworn in as Manitoba’s 25th Premier, Kinew invited the families to the legislature.

“We invited them to the legislature, just apologized for everything they went through. We smoked the pipe together, I wanted to show them that we’re serious about having a culturally respectful conversation and dialogue with them,” he says. “They had some tough questions, they had some things to get off their chest. I think I can say because everyone would being in their situation.

“So, we just started it from there. And now where we’re at, we’re in the machinery of government, like what is a budget look like, what does the process look like, how do you do the health and safety, what is the structure, all these different procedural things and so we’re still going to keep that dialogue with the families open and the Indigenous leadership. We’re going to get this thing done.”

As Kinew and his government approach their first 100 days in office, the first Anishinaabe premier of a province in Canada knows there are high expectations from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.

He says the public deserves to ask the best from people in high office and “we need to deliver on it.”

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