Wab Kinew, Manitoba’s first First Nations premier, wants to start with a clean slate

Kinew, the first First Nations premier in the province’s history, got a second chance at life. Canada’s about to see what he does with it.
Katie Underwood
Wab Kinew
(Photography by Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

In early October, Manitoba chose Wab Kinew. The leader of the NDP and the son of an Anishinaabe chief, Kinew became the first First Nations premier in the province’s history—breaking a chain of conservative counterparts that, hours before, had stretched from Alberta to P.E.I. On the campaign trail, Kinew made the usual big-tent promises (balancing the budget and slashing the health-care queue), but many Manitobans also saw him as the rare politician who’d deliver.

Progress is a satisfying campaign buzz-word, but it’s a lot harder in practice, which is something Kinew knows well. Before he was premier, an NDP MLA and even a CBC broadcaster (his real claim to fame), Kinew spent years mired in addiction, a dark period that included an impaired-driving charge and an assault conviction, detailed in his 2015 memoir, The Reason You Walk. Kinew has since gotten clean, raised three sons and set up shop in the Manitoba legislature, but now, new work begins, like navigating reconciliation, carbon taxes and crime. On all fronts, he wants to move forward. “I was given a second chance in life,” Kinew said during his victory speech. “I’d like to think I’ve made good on that opportunity.”

It’s always a bit intimidating to interview another career journalist. Is the media blitz of your early days in office making you nostalgic for broadcasting?

I really enjoyed being in the field. Back in 2011, Manitoba had an election, the Jets came back to Winnipeg and we experienced record floods—big news. One day, I’d cover huge celebrations about the return of the NHL, then the next, I’d talk to people in the Interlake region whose lives were totally disrupted by flooding. Now, I’m visiting those places again, but I’m better equipped to help.

Any on-air gaffes?

I once interviewed a guy whose dad founded a business called Ronald’s Fine Shoes. I asked what his dad’s name was.

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In addition to media, you’ve been an administrator at the University of Winnipeg, a rapper—which we’re definitely coming back to—and now you’re the premier. What’s the common thread between all those jobs?

Talking to people. A lot of my mentors, at CBC and the university, helped me learn the importance of listening, too.

You once described yourself as someone who wasn’t raised “to be somebody who’d keep my mouth shut.” Politician is the perfect job for someone like that!

Moderation is good, sometimes.

You’re the first First Nations premier in Manitoba. How’s that weight sitting a month in?

I’m trying to maintain a sustainable schedule of work and public-facing events, make time to coach my kids’ hockey teams and take dance lessons with my wife, Lisa. After the election, one of my first trips was to Cross Lake, a large First Nation up north, for a health centre opening. Seeing thousands of kids outside schools, yelling and waving and wanting to take selfies with me—that excitement is what it’s all about.

Health care was your major platform issue. Many reserves still don’t have clean water, and lots of Indigenous people can’t find doctors who understand their cultural needs. What other stumbling blocks come up over and over again in First Nations communities—things that just don’t get resolved?

Folks are aware of the many things wrong with health care, but Manitoba also has a growing number of Indigenous physicians. Our First Nations COVID task force collected data that informed public-health policy across Canada. Barry Lavallee at Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin is working on culturally specific delivery of health services. Courtney Leary runs a clinic in her home area of Norway House Cree Nation. We should devote our attention to that. I’m biased, though, because I’m married to a super-smart Indigenous doctor.

There are so many recent, high-profile examples of Canada’s political progress toward reconciliation—Orange Shirt Day, for example. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal just approved a $23-billion settlement for Indigenous families harmed by the child welfare system. Then we read about the outgoing Manitoba government refusing to search the Prairie Green landfill, near Winnipeg, for the remains of two First Nations women who were allegedly murdered, over logistical and safety concerns for workers. Does that never-ending back-and-forth ever discourage you?

My view on reconciliation is that we can improve the lives of Indigenous people without making the lives of non-Indigenous people worse. In Manitoba, Orange Shirt Day now is one of the most important days in the school calendar. A generation is growing up talking about residential schools. I don’t think of it as two steps forward, one step back. You know how, when you’re downloading something onto your phone, there’s a progress bar?

I’ve never heard someone compare reconciliation to an iPhone.

Canada hasn’t hit the 100 per cent mark on the reconciliation progress bar. We’re still in the downloading phase, if you will. It’s important to take the long view.

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Politics has become way more divisive since you became an MP in 2016. You talked on the campaign trail about your “second chance” at life. You struggled with addiction and had several run-ins with the law when you were younger. What was it like to have to review the “before” parts of your story, and have them raised by the opposition?

I understood what I was signing up for. Everyone knew the Manitoba campaign was going to be negative. But then the PC party ran ads against the landfill search, which effectively used the families of murder victims as political props. The same happened with the “parental rights” ads; we’re talking about vulnerable trans kids. I’m fair game, but once you bring other folks into it—people who haven’t signed up to join the fray—that’s when the divisiveness goes too far. The voting public is getting turned off by that.

We seem to be in a really interesting era of, not just politics, but politicians. On one end of the spectrum, you have the inaccessible, hide-your-skeletons camp—the old guard. On the opposite end, you have a more extreme camp of what I’d call “proud assholes,” politicians who seem almost delighted by the controversy they create. Lots of Canadians don’t want to vote at all because, to them, very few candidates seem like normal humans who just want to get stuff done. What do you make of your colleagues these days?

There are still a lot of good people in politics. My colleague Danielle Adams, the former MLA for Thompson, comes to mind. She was the NDP’s critic on child care, housing, disability and poverty issues. She once relied on the shelter system, and when she was first elected, she lived in a trailer park. She had a learning disability, and every time she had to speak during question period, she’d rehearse for hours beforehand. Nothing was handed to her. She passed away two years ago in a car wreck, while travelling for her MLA work. Her mom told me all of this afterwards.

Wow, that’s . . .

For me, Danielle is the standard. Politicians also need to remember that any kid out there could replace us in the future.

In your election-night address, you spoke directly to young people in Manitoba who might want to change their lives, whatever that means for them. You said, “The government can’t do it for you. You have to be the person who decides to take that first step.” To some, that message sounded pretty… conservative. Was that a misread?

I meant what I said; I just don’t think about it in political terms. Anyone who’s made a significant change understands the necessity of self-awareness, of being straight up with themselves. But nobody does anything alone. So I said, If you take the first step, our government will meet you with support.

As a society, we’re slowly unhooking from the idea that we’re all just doomed to become our parents and moving toward the notion that, actually, you can break the cycle. What cycle did you have to break?

All of us inherit a legacy, but many of us have legacies that were more dramatically affected by failed governments of the past. I’ll simply say that my goal is to not pass along trauma from residential schools to the next generation. Growing up in a community—Onigaming First Nation in northwestern Ontario and, more generally, the community of Indigenous nations—I’ve seen that trauma play out in lives of many people I know. I feel a responsibility to be a sober, devoted husband and a loving dad who’s on the ice at my sons’ games.

Part of your recovery happened in Alcoholics Anonymous. Another part came by way of Indigenous traditions. What did leaning into your culture offer you that more Westernized forms of care didn’t?

For me, the sundance was a very visceral, powerful experience—as far from the nine-to-five North American lifestyle as you can get. It’s a sacred ceremony that plays out over eight days, one that involves fasting (including water), sleeping for a couple of hours a night and dancing from sun-up until evening. Sometimes, there are piercings and name-givings. You live with your immediate family in a teepee, with your extended family around a central campfire. I’m grateful they all had my back. It probably wasn’t easy to walk with me then.

What else helped you?

Going to the gym. Making new friends who were more engaged with health and fitness than partying. Yes, you do need the dramatic interventions that help you find something greater than yourself, but it’s also really important to have a day-to-day thing. I run, I lift weights and, sometimes, I take the kids hunting.

We talked about the inflammatory digs that politicians trade in. The rap world has its share of those, too. In the early 2000s, you rapped about slapping women in a group called Dead Indians. In 2009, you tweeted about taking up wrestling because “jiu-jitsu wasn’t gay enough.” What made you change your way of thinking?

The fundamental answer is: I grew up. When I was young, I was into the party lifestyle. When I became a parent, I wanted to be a positive force in my kids’ lives. Now, I’m even older, and I try to think about how the things I say affect my community—specifically, what I say in public.

Do you go back to Onigaming often?

We were there last weekend for a ceremony, and we try to go every summer. It was tough to get the kids out there until we got Wi-Fi.

Kids can bring a certain please don’t make me do this vibe to family activities, but are there certain traditions you want your sons to pick up on?

I want them to know the lakes in the area: Lake of the Woods and Crow Lake. I want them to have the feeling that I have when I get out onto the water in a boat, when you leave the shore and the waters open up and your spirit swells. I want them to know what it feels like to walk in the bush and see a rock painting, knowing their ancestors were there. And I want them to know the people I grew up with, to have a living connection to the homeland.

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We’ve talked a lot about progress today, but do you ever notice your own parents come out when you’re parenting? Like, Oh my god, that was my dad.

One hundred per cent. My dad was the guy who, if I got 99 per cent in a class, he’d ask where the other one per cent went. Classic, right? Still, he gave me a no-nonsense attitude toward duty. I’d like to pass that along, maybe without his attendant harshness.

You’re still within the all-important first-100-day window of your premiership. Is any of your dad’s advice guiding you now?

My dad was chief of Onigaming, a politician, but the advice I use has nothing to do with politics. When I started out in TV, a hosting opportunity came my way. I told my dad I was worried that having to look into a camera all the time would make it challenging for me to maintain humility. He just said, “Use the pipe.” There’s the sacred pipe, but he meant to lean into my cultural teachings. I try to wake up before the sun each day and pray in the old way. The goal is to live by what my community taught me. I don’t always reach it, but every day, I get up again. I try to do it a little better.