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We need more Wab Kinews

March 19, 2024

By Max Fawcett | OpinionPolitics | March 19th 2024

Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew shares a podium with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back in February. Has Kinew eclipsed Trudeau as Canada’s sunniest politician? THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Listen to article

Canada’s National Observer: OPINION: Max Fawcett – It’s not easy to be hopeful about politics right now. Whether it’s the return of Trumpism in the United States, the increasingly polarized discourse here in Canada or the prospect of a federal election being contested by three deeply underwhelming leaders, the future doesn’t exactly inspire. That’s why Wab Kinew’s first few months as Manitoba’s 25th premier have been so encouraging — and why he could quickly become a role model for other leaders like him.

According to the latest Angus Reid Institute poll, Kinew is by far the most popular provincial leader in the country. His 63 per cent approval rating is 10 points clear of the nearest competitor, and more than double that of Quebec’s François Legault or New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs. And no wonder: Kinew brings a combination of powerful oratory skills, personal charm and political star power that Canada hasn’t seen before outside of a Trudeau. As the first provincial First Nations premier in Canadian history, Kinew might have more in common with Barack Obama, who overcame his own country’s troubled history to become president. 

Like Obama, Kinew clearly intends to govern from the centre, and his decision to implement a six-month gas tax holiday and tighten bail conditions on repeat offenders were important markers of the political path his government will walk. Like Gary Doer, Kinew understands the road to re-election in Manitoba runs up the middle — especially for an NDP government. 

But there are other markers that signal his commitment to creating a government different from any Manitoba — and Canada — has seen before. Kinew’s cabinet is the most diverse in the country, with a 39-year-old Black, non-binary former psychiatric nurse named Uzoma Asagwara as his deputy premier. Kinew’s decision to personally take on the role of minister of Indigenous reconciliation elevates it to the level of significance it deserves but has rarely been given in this country. At a moment when efforts to increase representational diversity are being aggressively challenged on the right across North America, Kinew’s government offers a useful counterweight. 

More than anything, though, it’s the positivity that seems to vibrate through Kinew on a molecular level that stands out. We live in a political culture saturated with negativity and pessimism, where retribution and revenge seem to have more currency than things like co-operation or care. And yet, here’s this guy who can’t seem to help but smile or make predictably awkward (or is it awkwardly predictable?) dad jokes. Sure, part of that is his shtick, but it still hits like a breath of fresh air in a room filled with stale farts. 

As Kinew told the Toronto Star’s Andrew Phillips, “Canadians are hungry for a positive message.” He would know. Given his own complicated backstory, one that includes a couple of brushes with the law, Kinew’s political success is a testament to the possibility (and power) of second chances. As Onigaming Chief Jeffrey Copenace told the Globe and Mail’s Nancy MacDonald last November, “Hopefully, this will mark a turning point for some of our young people — to become dreamers, to start thinking of a future, of college or university, or even about becoming the next Wab Kinew.”

I’m counting on it. I would bet heavily that we’re on the verge of seeing a whole new generation of Indigenous leaders run for public office at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. They’ll take the lessons they’ve learned serving in their own communities and apply them to the broader challenges facing the Canadian public. They will enrich and expand our sense of what’s possible and the ways we set out to achieve it. In time, and hopefully not that much of it, Canada will have its first Indigenous prime minister. 

Kinew’s election as Manitoba premier could mark a turning point for non-Indigenous Canadians as well. In a moment where it feels like all our political leaders do is find people to fight with, Kinew is showing that there’s another way to serve the public interest. “I don’t think people elected us in our province to pick fights with other elected officials,” he told the Toronto Star. “They elected us to do things like cover [prescription] drugs.”

Kinew’s success might even send a warning shot across the bow of the proudly petulant Pierre Poilievre, whose capacity for leadership seems almost entirely defined by his ability to cast blame and start fights. There may not be much at this point that a tired Liberal government or an inept federal NDP can do to reverse Poilievre’s political momentum. But Kinew is showing there’s another way to practise politics in this country, and it’s one Canadians find deeply appealing. It’s not hard to imagine some future Liberal or NDP leader applying the same formula to federal politics and using it to take down a future Poilievre government. And who knows, at the rate things are going for him, it might even be Wab Kinew.

March 19th 2024