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What Wab Kinew’s victory in Manitoba means for the rest of Canada: ‘One party united the vote and the other party divided’

October 5, 2023

The tasks facing Manitoba’s next premier will test a politician who ran a campaign deliberately targeting all voters as he navigates fraught and looming issues in his province.

Toronto Star: Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew delivers his victory speech and wishes his mother, Kathi Avery Kinew, a happy birthday, after winning the Manitoba Provincial election Tuesday. 

Toronto StarThe first provincial election of a First Nations premier is being hailed as a shift in Canadian politics, a repudiation of “ugly” campaign tactics and proof of Manitoba’s status as ground zero for reconciliation in this country.

The electorate’s embrace of provincial NDP Leader Wab Kinew’s positive message signals an encouraging change in Canadian politics, said Niigaan James Sinclair, a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba. He characterized Kinew’s victory as “Obama-esque.”

It’s in some ways fitting that Manitoba is the first province to elect a First Nations premier, experts told the Star. At about 20 per cent, Manitoba has the highest Indigenous population per capita among Canadian provinces, while Winnipeg has the highest Indigenous population in the country among large urban centres.

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The tasks facing Kinew will test a politician who ran a campaign deliberately targeting all voters as he navigates fraught and looming issues in his province.

His campaign focus on uniting Manitobans is ultimately what led his party to form a majority government Tuesday night, experts say. Unlike his opponents, the governing Progressive Conservatives led by Heather Stefanson, he succeeded by avoiding identity politics and keeping a laser-sharp focus on the one issue that was most important to people in the province: health care.

Manitoba had the second-highest death rate nationwide from COVID-19 during the pandemic and has one of the biggest shortages of family doctors in the country, said Kelly Saunders, a political scientist at Brandon University.

“I think it came back to the issues at the end of the day, but certainly, the Conservative tactics just discouraged people from considering maybe voting for them,” Saunders said.

The province has had two Indigenous leaders before, and both were Métis: John Norquay was premier in the late 1800s, and Louis Riel made Manitoba the only province to be brought into Confederation by an Indigenous leader.

“We started off in that regard and it’s taken us a number of years to take another concrete, really important step forward, I think, on reconciliation,” Saunders said. “And I think (Tuesday) night was really emblematic of that.”

Early in his campaign, Kinew acknowledged the role his background played in motivating him to run for office.

But he refused to be pigeonholed as an Indigenous candidate, instead highlighting how he believed his opponents were using identity politics to frame him in a certain way. In his speech to the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg in August, he said the Tories’ tactic of highlighting convictions he faced nearly two decades ago as a campaign issue was partly motivated by racism and stereotypes.

“Why would Heather Stefanson and the PCs, who’ve been so terrible on crime, want to talk about crime during this election? Because it’s not about crime,” he said. “It’s about me. And it’s at least partially about me being a person who sometimes wears my hair in a braid.”

But while he acknowledged the significance of his ancestry in his victory speech, Kinew — whose late father was not allowed to vote as a young man under Canadian law at the time — never made race a central issue of his campaign. “He did not go out of the way to remind the voters or the electorate that he is Indigenous because the fact remains that he has to appeal to the majority of Manitobans,” said Sinclair.

The PC campaign focused on divisive issues, including a tough-on-crime commitment to hire more police officers and pledging to “stand firm” on refusing to search a landfill north of Winnipeg for the remains of two Indigenous women, due to purported safety concerns.

On Wednesday the federal government pledged $740,000 toward further assessing the scope of a search.

Ottawa to fund further study of landfill search: 1:44

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Tax cuts were also a central theme of the campaign, while Stefanson’s promise to expand “parental rights” in schools while staying mum on the details also loomed large.

Her appeal to a “coalition of the angry” failed, said Sinclair, borrowing the term from a colleague at the Winnipeg Free Press.

“Not all of us are needing more tax cuts. Not all of us are needing more police officers. Not all of us really want the remains of Indigenous women to be sitting in a garbage dump … what he really united Manitobans with is that we all have horrendously terrible experiences in health care,” Sinclair said. “It was a simple case of one party united the vote and the other party divided.”

At one point during the campaign, the PCs ran a full-page newspaper ad that mentioned Kinew’s past criminal convictions and warned voters, “Don’t gamble on the NDP.”

Early in his campaign, Kinew acknowledged he wasn’t perfect and had a major problem with alcoholism in his past, saying he “did some things I’m not proud of.” A Canadian Press story noted that in his 2015 memoir “The Reason You Walk,” Kinew admitted to some of his legal troubles from 2003 and 2004 — convictions related to impaired driving and an assault on a taxi driver — and apologized for his past behaviour.

Kinew later received a record suspension, commonly called a pardon, for all his convictions.

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 assaulted the former girlfriend.

Kinew said his experiences with the criminal justice system played a major part in him redefining himself as a person and succeeding after he was given a “second chance.”

“My political opponents think I’m running from my past, but actually, my past is the reason I’m running.”

In the final days, the PCs took out an advertisement that urged Manitobans to “vote like no one is watching.”

“It was the last in a series of really bizarre, wedge, play-to-the-ugly-side-of-politics, however you want to describe it. We all just shook our heads. Who are they trying to appeal to?” Saunders said.

Kinew’s resounding victory represents a clear rejection of these political tactics, Saunders added.

She noted that former Conservative MP and deputy leader Candice Bergen served as the PCs’ campaign co-chair, while other federal Conservative operatives helped.

Some have wondered if the tone of the PCs’ campaign was an attempt to “tap into the culture wars” and gauge the public’s appetite for these issues.

Saunders said the PCs took a hard turn to the right as the NDP saw momentum, a tactic that ultimately backfired. “I think it’s going to send a message, and hopefully it’s a message that will resonate to other leaders and other provinces — that those kinds of tactics, those kinds of ideas, just have no place in this country,” Saunders said.

She added that the tone of the PCs’ campaign was not one she’d seen before in the province as a lifelong resident.

A Manitoba cabinet minister defeated in Tuesday’s provincial election said the Progressive Conservative party she has served for years now needs to address an identity crisis. Rochelle Squires, who served in a variety of cabinet posts since the Tories took power in 2016, said she was surprised by campaign ads that touted the government’s opposition to a landfill search.

“It certainly was a surprise and certainly was something that was not reflective of the work that we had been doing in government for the last seven-and-a-half years, and it’s deeply regrettable,” Squires said Wednesday.

The Tory campaign messaging was also criticized Wednesday by David McLaughlin, who managed two successful Tory elections under former premier Brian Pallister in 2016 and 2019.

McLaughlin said as a campaign manager, he would not have accepted someone proposing a landfill ad. “I would have thrown them out of the room.”

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is based at the University of Manitoba and Winnipeg has long served as a flashpoint for the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls — from the discovery of the remains of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in the Red River in 2014, which spurred outrage nationwide, to the recent attention on a landfill believed to contain the remains of Indigenous women who police allege were the victims of a serial killer.

While some pundits argued that Indigenous concerns had been “sidelined” during the campaign — framing the search of the landfill as the primary issue — Sinclair said he strongly disagreed. He pointed out that the central issues of the campaign, namely health care, affordability and crime, are all issues that disproportionally affect Indigenous people.

But instead of fuelling people’s anger or fear about these issues, Kinew focused on their root causes, including economic disparities created by colonialism, and proposed smart solutions to address them, Sinclair said.

“I think Manitoba itself is an anomaly … I’m biased of course, but Manitoba is the place that will lead reconciliation, that will lead on issues involving climate change and inflation,” Sinclair said. “Frankly, things that are happening in Manitoba are far more exciting and interesting than a lot of the country.”

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter:@OmarMosleh.

With files from The Canadian Press