To his supporters, Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew’s troubled past is a story of personal redemption. To his opponents, it’s one of a man who hasn’t fully come clean about his actions and doesn’t deserve the keys to the premier’s office.
Kinew, 37, has stayed on as Opposition leader despite previous criminal charges and revelations in the media and in attack ads by the governing Progressive Conservatives about homophobic and misogynistic rap lyrics and social media posts.
The revelations, which started just as he was making his first election run in 2016 and continued through to his NDP leadership victory in 2017, might have persuaded some politicians to walk away. But Kinew has persisted and expects the governing Tories to ramp up their ads about his past now that the election campaign is underway.
“Whether it’s fatalist, or whether it’s realist, I have accepted the fact that it’s going to be a tough road,” Kinew said in an interview.
“I do worry a lot about what the (Tory) attacks ads are going to be like, on a personal level, because I’ve been at the centre of media firestorms before, so that does scare me.
“But I continue to believe that the broader goal of standing up for health care and standing up for Manitobans is important enough for me to push forward.”
Kinew was born in Kenora, Ont., and lived on the Onigaming First Nation as a young boy. His late father was a residential school survivor who endured horrific abuse and passed on to Kinew the importance of Anishinaabe culture and language.
Both Kinew’s parents were well educated and wanted the same for him. He spent some of his formative years in a well-to-do suburb in southern Winnipeg and graduated from a private high school.
Kinew studied economics in university and began abusing alcohol.
In his 2015 memoir, “The Reason You Walk,” Kinew admitted to some of his legal troubles from 2003 and 2004 — convictions for impaired driving and an assault on a taxi driver.
Court records included details about the assault not contained in the book. It started with Kinew hurling racial insults at the driver. Kinew got out and punched the cabbie in the face while he was still sitting behind the wheel, facts read into the court record say.
Kinew recently received a record suspension for his convictions.
The book also did not mention two assault charges Kinew faced in 2003 involving his former partner Tara Hart. Hart told The Canadian Press in 2017 that Kinew flung her across their living room, leaving her with severe rug burns.
The charges were stayed in 2004 and Kinew has denied the allegation.
Kinew went to Alcoholics Anonymous in his 20s and, his supporters say, turned over a new leaf. He later worked at the CBC, became the University of Winnipeg’s first director of Indigenous inclusion and wrote his book.
He is known as a good public speaker. He has hosted a TV documentary series and toured on the Canadian literature circuit. Political analysts say Kinew’s ability to work a room may be better than that of his opponents.
“He is a naturally gifted communicator and he has grown those talents to become even better,” said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
Just as Kinew started running in the 2016 election, lyrics and social media posts from his past surfaced.
In one song, he bragged about slapping women’s genitalia. In a Twitter post from 2009, he mused about whether it was possible to get avian flu from “kissing fat chicks”. In another Twitter post, he joked about having run over a cat.
Kinew has repeatedly apologized for his harmful behaviour while continuing to deny the domestic violence accusation.
Thomas says Kinew’s story will resonate with some people as that of a troubled young man making good.
“If you read his autobiography and listen to him talk, there was a moment where he turned his life around and he found direction and purpose.
“Some people will say, ‘Well, I’m convinced by that. He is a different man.'”
Kinew is married to Lisa Monkman, a family physician, and has three children. Despite the spotlight on his personal history, he shows no sign of letting up.
“Being in leadership isn’t just about the good times. It’s also about the struggle,” Kinew said.
“I really am committed to being the voice of people who are not happy right now in Manitoba, people who want us to do better.”