While Wab Kinew insists that his goal is not to create a historical moment based on his ethnicity by becoming Manitoba’s first Anishinaabe premier, it is evident that his community and cultural connections will bring a fresh perspective to the role of premier.
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.
In his victory speech on Tuesday, Kinew expressed gratitude for being given another opportunity in life and believes that he has made the most of it.
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.
He stated that his intention was not to become the first First Nations premier, but rather to strive to be the most excellent premier.
“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.
Kinew expressed astonishment at the weightiness of the medal as he held it.
Although his family had prepared him to pursue a career in leadership, Kinew expressed that he anticipated taking on such a role after accomplishing something significant.
However, he became a sun dance chief at a time when he was experiencing great difficulties in his life. This was after he had been convicted of assault and impaired driving in the early 2000s, although he was later granted pardons for these offenses.
The book failed to include any reference to the two instances of domestic assault charges that Kinew faced in 2003, which involved his then-girlfriend. These charges were later dropped after a few months, and Kinew has consistently maintained his innocence regarding any assault against his ex-girlfriend.
In 2017, CBC News found inconsistencies between the description of Kinew’s attack on a taxi driver in Winnipeg in 2004 as written in the book and the official court records. In response, Kinew admitted his mistake and accepted responsibility.
In his memoir, Kinew expressed remorse for his previous actions, which included writing misogynistic rap lyrics. He acknowledged that he was a troubled individual struggling 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.
Journalist, rapper, academic
Kinew has held various roles prior to his entrance into the Manitoba Legislature in 2016. The leader of the NDP had previously worked as a journalist, rapper, and served as the inaugural director of Indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg before transitioning into the realm of politics.
After relocating to Winnipeg as a child, he pursued his education there, obtaining university degrees in economics and Indigenous governance.
In December 2005, Kinew was able to start working at CBC when a producer came across a letter he had written to the Winnipeg Free Press. The letter discussed the controversial decision of Team Canada to select Vancouver Canuck Todd Bertuzzi, who had a criminal record, to participate in the Winter Olympics.
Janice Moeller, the former senior producer of audio at CBC Manitoba, remembered the letter Wab sent to the Free Press which stated, “I have a past, when will I be given another opportunity?”
She expressed her interest in bringing him in, having him record the conversation, and broadcasting it as a commentary.
Moeller said Kinew’s talent for listening and considering multiple perspectives helped him excel at the public broadcaster. He quickly gained recognition as a host and reporter for radio and television shows, both at a local and national level.
She expressed that on election night, she found his victory speech discussing second chances to be deeply emotional. The speech reminded her of the letter, which focused on the timing and deservingness of granting second chances to individuals.
“If you acquire one, it demonstrates the potential for achievement.”
In 2017, Kinew became the leader of the Manitoba NDP. This happened a year after he was elected as the MLA for Winnipeg’s Fort Rouge riding. During that election, his party was unable to win a fifth majority government in a row, and the Progressive Conservatives took control for the first time in more than twenty years.
In July 2021, Kinew, during his tenure as Opposition leader, made a significant move by confronting the newly appointed minister of Indigenous reconciliation and northern relations from the PC party in the legislative assembly. The confrontation arose from the minister’s defense of residential schools.
In the subsequent September, the NDP managed to postpone Bill 64, an education reform bill that sparked controversy, along with four other laws, causing the governing PCs to abandon them.
Since 2016, the party had been in Opposition and had not achieved many significant legislative victories under Kinew before he became premier.
‘A really effective leader’
Lloyd Axworthy, a previous member of the federal Liberal cabinet and the president of the University of Winnipeg, was introduced to Kinew by his father. Kinew’s father held positions as an elder and professor at the university.
Axworthy recommends that individuals who are unfamiliar with Kinew should observe and listen. He asserts that the leader of the NDP will introduce a new perspective to both the province and the nation.
After having the opportunity to work with him, I am confident in his ability to become a highly successful leader.
Axworthy stated that while serving as the university’s director of Indigenous inclusion, Kinew played a role in a team effort to raise funds for programs and scholarship funds, specifically aimed at supporting inner city students.
“He played a significant role in enhancing the prospects for youth residing in the urban areas and played a pivotal role in reshaping the university’s identity, which I believe exemplified genuine leadership.”
In early September, the experienced Liberal expressed his endorsement for Kinew and praised his character in a letter, amidst the provincial election campaign. He disagreed with the Progressive Conservatives who focused on the NDP leader’s criminal history rather than acknowledging his positive contributions to the community.
The driving force behind his actions was his past experiences, as he believed they would shape his future abilities.
Axworthy stated that Kinew’s victory in the election served as proof of Manitobans’ refusal to support such a 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.
Nemogá stated that during his time at the University of Winnipeg, he had the opportunity to acknowledge an exceptionally important leader. Kinew’s thesis in 2019, titled “Aanakanootandaa Anishinaabemowin: Let’s Translate the Ojibwe Language,” explored the utilization of technology in translating the Anishinaabe language.
He is an individual who embraces challenges, successfully overcomes obstacles, and navigates through tough circumstances. I believe Kinew possesses unique abilities due to his First Nations background and his integration into mainstream society.
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.”
Nemogá advises against being excessively optimistic about Kinew’s leadership as premier.
“We take pleasure in and commemorate this occurrence, but it is important to exercise patience and remain highly vigilant regarding forthcoming events, as a new option will require backing for its realization.”