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Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew speaks at a Premier and cabinet swearing-in ceremony in Winnipeg on Oct. 18.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Lloyd Axworthy is the chair of the World Refugee and Migration Council. He has previously served as Canada’s foreign minister, as a Manitoba MP from 1973 to 2000, and as president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg from 2004 to 2014.

Too often, Manitoba is seen as a flyover place. But no longer: the province is now the epicentre of an exciting political event that will have significant consequences for the future of governance for all Canadians.

Wab Kinew, who was sworn in as Premier last week, is the avatar of this change. He is the first First Nations leader of a government and, at 42, is poised to usher in a new era of leadership. Mr. Kinew represents the millennial generation – people born in the eighties who are now ready to replace contrarian Gen-Xers. His message of making good on second chances will inspire many young people. Canada is about to learn who Wab Kinew is, and why he is poised to shake foundations and rewrite conventional political scripts.

I learned this myself, years ago, when I saw his self-confidence, intelligence and commitment when we worked together in the 2010s at the University of Winnipeg. His father, Tobasonakwut Kinew, was a professor there, and an admired elder who, along with other Indigenous leaders, helped the university redefine its role in the inner city. His son, who had become immersed in the healing culture of the Anishinaabe people, got involved in the university and soon became the school’s director of Indigenous inclusion. Together with Jennifer Rattray and Kevin Chief, they created opportunities for Indigenous students in higher education, creating a model that has since been followed by many other universities.

Even then, I knew that Wab was destined for politics. He had a keen eye for the political process and policy in the province. Over the years, we would meet for lunch in various bistros on Osborne Street and Corydon Avenue to discuss the changes taking place in the province: its increasing diversity, the growing signs of inequity and discrimination, how homeless people gathered in bus shelters and beneath bridges. We also talked about how the jails were filled disproportionally with Indigenous men, and how the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls continued to grow.

After his 2017 election as Leader of the Manitoba NDP, he aimed to rebuild the party’s electoral base by moving beyond the traditional sectors of labour support. He recruited young men and women who would become vanguards of reform, reflecting the changing face of the community. These individuals included a non-binary nurse who led the charge against the Tories’ unravelling of the health care system; a representative from an inner-city riding whose parents lived in housing shelters when they moved to Winnipeg; a member of the Sagkeeng Anishnaabe First Nation who led the response to murdered and missing women; and an immigrant from the Philippines who became the party’s spokesperson on immigration.

For many, he truly stepped into his leadership on July 15, 2021. Alan Lagimodiere had just been sworn in as Manitoba’s minister of Indigenous relations and northern affairs in Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government, and was telling reporters on the steps leading to the Manitoba Legislative Chamber that residential schools were meant to teach children skills. Before he could finish, Mr. Kinew approached him and calmly told the minister why he was wrong, urging him to learn the true history of residential schools. Manitobans saw a politician who stood his ground without histrionics by giving a spontaneous lesson on why governments must reckon with truth if we are to have reconciliation.

As Premier, Mr. Kinew takes office with high expectations and a truckload of difficult issues he’ll have to grapple with. The business community is waiting to see if the new government will institute new measures to spur economic growth. Rural Manitobans, who in the main voted for Heather Stefanson’s Progressive Conservatives, will need to feel that they count in the new equation. There has to be immediate action on the search of the Prairie Green landfill, where the remains of two murdered Indigenous women are believed to be buried, and on the rebuilding of Manitoba’s health system.

If Mr. Kinew’s swearing-in ceremony is any indication – a beautiful celebration of Manitoba’s history and cultural values, where he honoured Louis Riel and appointed himself Minister of Reconciliation – then his government should be up to the task. Strikingly, the Premier used the occasion to declare that leaders of Indigenous nations will henceforth be treated as leaders of governments; won’t that be a game-changer at the next federal-provincial meeting.

In a world where most of the news is depressing, it’s refreshing to look to Canada’s Keystone Province and see a beacon of light that shows how governments can lead with both principle and pragmatism.

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