Wab Kinew, the leader of Manitoba’s New Democratic Party, is set to become Canada’s first First Nations provincial premier after winning a majority government in Tuesday’s election.
Mr. Kinew, a 41-year-old former rapper, broadcaster, author and university administrator, spent parts of his childhood on the Onigaming First Nation in Ontario and took over Manitoba’s Opposition NDP six years ago. His victory followed a bitter campaign in which he fended off attacks from the incumbent Progressive Conservatives over a troubled past that included criminal charges – a history that he openly acknowledged as an important factor in turning his life around as he talked about negative stereotypes about Indigenous people.
Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson, who took over the party and became the province’s first female Premier two years ago, gravitated toward socially conservative positions during the campaign and repeatedly pledged not to search a landfill for the remains of two Indigenous women police believe are buried at the site.
The NDP victory breaks up the alliance of right-leaning provincial premiers spanning from Alberta to the Maritimes, and could give Prime Minister Justin Trudeau an ally in Western Canada. And Mr. Kinew’s path to the Premier’s Office marks a breakthrough for First Nations representation in Canadian politics.
Mr. Kinew called the election result a “great victory” for all of the province’s citizens, and emphasized the NDP’s plans for health care before addressing his own biography.
“A lot of people in the big cities, they look down on us here in Manitoba. ‘Fly-over country,’ they said. ‘Winter-peg, Man-it-is-cold-out,’ they said,” Mr. Kinew said, tossing out teasing phrases about the province. “But look what little, old Manitoba did tonight. Manitoba did something more progressive than any of those big cities ever did. We elected a strong team of New Democrats to fix health care and make your life more affordable.”
The leader later addressed his First Nations background and rocky road to the Premier’s Office.
“I want to speak to the young Neechies out there,” he said, using an Indigenous slang term for relative. “I was given a second chance in life. And I would like to think that I’ve made good on that opportunity. And you can do the same.”
He added: “My life became immeasurably better when I stopped making excuses and I started looking for a reason. And I found that reason in our family, I found that reason in our community. And I found that reason in our province and country.”
Mr. Kinew suggested young people can change their lives, too. “But here’s the thing. You have to want it,” he said. “If you want to leave the party lifestyle behind, it has to be you to make the decision.”
From climbing the career ladder to healing from an illness, individuals have to make the first step, he said. “A government can’t do that for you,” the NDP Leader added.
Mr. Kinew also reached out to voters who shunned his party, primarily in rural parts of the province. He asked those voters to give his team a chance and, if in four years the NDP improved health care and made lives more affordable, that they send more members of his party to the legislature.
Mr. Kinew thanked outgoing PC Leader Ms. Stefanson for her service to the province before concluding his victory speech to a raucous crowd.
Ms. Stefanson, speaking to supporters in Winnipeg, conceded the race to Mr. Kinew. “He loves this province and he loves the people of Manitoba,” she said. “And I wish him all the best.”
She said she hopes Mr. Kinew’s victory inspires more Indigenous youth to get involved. “The historic nature of Mr. Kinew’s victory must be acknowledged” she said.
Ms. Stefanson announced plans to resign as the leader of the PCs and promised her colleagues would hold the NDP’s “feet to the fire” as the outgoing government moves to Opposition benches.
Ms. Stefanson has been PC Leader, and premier, since the fall of 2021.
Dougald Lamont also announced Tuesday that he would step down as Manitoba Liberal Leader after losing his seat in St. Boniface to NDP candidate Robert Loiselle.
The PCs had been in office since May, 2016, when former Tory leader Brian Pallister ended the NDP’s grip on government that lasted nearly 17 years. Manitoba closed three emergency departments in Winnipeg during Mr. Pallister’s tenure and the PCs, like governments across the country, struggled during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Pallister further shed support after he made what many considered insensitive remarks about residential schools in chastising those who toppled statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth during a walk to remember Indigenous children.
The NDP and Mr. Kinew, who was born to an Anishinaabe father and non-Indigenous mother, went into the election race with an edge over the PCs and Ms. Stefanson, although the gap narrowed during the campaign.
Manitoba’s conservatives tend to be more moderate and progressive than their governing counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan, said Kelly Saunders, a political science professor at Brandon University. During the election campaign, however, Manitoba’s PCs shifted to the right, she said.
“Our PCs are really borrowing a page from their Prairie cousins” and the Conservative Party of Canada, she said. “They are playing with politics that we’ve never really seen before here.”
She pointed to the PCs’ campaign promise to expand “parental rights” over what children learn in school and their involvement in addressing bullying and other behaviour changes. Ms. Stefanson refused to clarify whether her proposal would prevent teachers from using a student’s chosen name and pronouns without parental consent.
Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, which both have conservative premiers, recently introduced controversial policies around names and pronouns, which they say protects parents’ rights but which critics argue erode LGBTQ+ rights and could put some students at risk at home.
The PCs also campaigned on not searching the Prairie Green landfill for the remains of two missing Indigenous women: Morgan Harris, 39, and Marcedes Myran, 26. Police in Winnipeg believe an alleged serial killer murdered them and their remains were then transported to the landfill.
Manitoba New Democrats won a majority government on Oct. 3 with leader Wan Kinew becoming the first First Nations premier of a province. Progressive Conservative leader Heather Stefanson announced she would step down after leading the Tories for nearly two years.
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“Stand firm against the unsafe $184-million landfill dig,” a PC ad in the Winnipeg Free Press said.
Public opinion on whether to search the landfill is roughly split, according to observers, but campaigning on not trying to find the women’s remains is a “bizarre election plank,” according to Prof. Saunders.
The PCs also tried to paint Mr. Kinew as a dangerous choice. “Don’t gamble on the NDP,” one PC ad said, listing some of the charges Mr. Kinew has faced beside a photo of him with his fingers intertwined, save for his index fingers and thumbs, which are sticking out to form a make-believe gun. “You will be dealt a very bad hand.”
Mr. Kinew has acknowledged his troubled past, including an assault on a taxi driver and an arrest for refusing a breathalyzer test. He also argued Ms. Stefanson was keen to talk about crime on the campaign trail as a backdoor way of getting voters to consider his Indigenous background in a negative light.
Prof. Saunders expects political strategists across the spectrum – but particularly in conservative strongholds – to take note of how Manitobans responded to Ms. Stefanson’s strategic shift.
“Other parties, other governments, are watching,” Prof. Saunders said.
While the PCs shifted to social conservatism, proposed affordability measures, and steered attention away from their record, the NDP ran a focused and disciplined campaign, experts said.
“The NDP has been very relentlessly focused on health care,” Royce Koop, a political science professor at the University of Manitoba, said. “They decided that this was their issue.”
Mr. Kinew has represented Fort Rouge, in Winnipeg, since 2016 and became the leader of the provincial NDP in 2017. Ms. Stefanson was first elected in Winnipeg’s Tuxedo riding in a 2000 by-election.
The Liberals did not run a full slate of candidates, Mr. Koop said. The NDP angled for Liberal supporters to rally behind Mr. Kinew and ran a strong candidate against Mr. Lamont.
“The party has been on life support for a very long time.”