WINNIPEG – When the Manitoba NDP announced it was nominating broadcaster, author and Indigenous activist Wab Kinew to run in a Winnipeg riding, it was hailed as a brilliant move that could breathe new life into a party at risk of being swept from power.
Charismatic with a high profile — Kinew’s book “The Reason You Walk” was recently a nominee for the RBC Taylor Prize — his image became the NDP’s home page and the party encouraged people to tweet #ImWithWab.
But with the start of the official campaign still days away, the 34-year-old candidate is facing some difficult questions about his past.
Questions about rap lyrics he wrote more than 10 years ago about hitting women in the face with a fist and his genitalia; questions about tweets where he mentions taking up wrestling because “jiu-jitsu wasn’t gay enough;” questions about a post describing riding in a limo while kids on a northern Ontario reserve suffer; and questions about a tweet asking if someone can get the flu from “kissing fat chicks.”
Other candidates for office have quit or been tossed aside for much less, but Kinew is staying on.
“I’m trying very hard to conduct myself honourably in this campaign,” he said in an interview last week. “I think we all know where this stuff is coming from and it would be very easy, based on my family background, to retaliate but I would prefer to talk about policy.
“If I have to talk about myself and my own personal transformation first before I talk about societal change, then I’m happy to do that.”
Kinew was born in Kenora, Ont., and lived on Onigaming First Nation before his family moved to Winnipeg. His late father was a residential school survivor who endured horrific abuse, but passed on the importance of Anishnabe culture and language to his son. Both Kinew’s parents were well-educated and wanted the same for him.
“Things were tense at home. My dad was a great man. He fought for our civil rights,” Kinew said. “But he was also very distant and very angry when he was around. That coloured a lot of my childhood as well.”
Kinew said he first encountered racism as a young boy in Winnipeg — a teacher once choked him in class and then whispered a slur.
He did well in school and went to university to study economics, but got caught up in a “party lifestyle.” He drank, did drugs, got arrested for drunk driving and for assaulting a cab driver.
“I hit rock bottom on a personal level,” he said. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I realized I had a huge problem with my ego, I had a huge problem with my anger. For a long time I told myself that because I had been mistreated, I was somehow justified in treating others poorly.”
Kinew had been part of a rap group called the Dead Indians. As he became a father and his political awareness grew, Kinew saw the contradiction in advocating for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and the misogyny and homophobia of hip-hop culture.
He apologized for the lyrics in his book and at the Aboriginal People’s Choice Awards. But four years ago, he reunited with the group for a one-time performance.
“I had one young woman come up to me after the show and say ‘That’s not who you are anymore. Why are you with these guys?'” Kinew recalled. “I just recognized, we’re not in the same place anymore.”
Kinew worked at the CBC in Winnipeg before becoming the University of Winnipeg’s first director of Indigenous inclusion. All the while he tried to repair the relationship with his father.
“All my life, I thought my dad hated me. It turns out, he just had no idea how to express what he felt.”
Now the father of his own two sons, Kinew said he notices he’s too quick to anger when they act out.
“In those moments, I recognize my father,” he said. “My children deserve to grow up without feeling the anger or the lack of self-esteem.”
Kinew is running against Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari and Audrey Gordon for the Progressive Conservatives in the April 19 vote.
Lloyd Axworthy, former Liberal foreign minister and the university president who hired Kinew, said Kinew’s personality and spirituality can attract people and help “provide a new narrative for the country.”
“He will be one of the important players in the country,” Axworthy said. “There is no question in my mind about it.”
But his past comments have many demanding he step down.
A group of Indigenous Liberal candidates said Friday that Kinew’s comments show he’s not fit for public office. Former federal Conservative cabinet minister Michelle Rempel called his comments “inhumane.”
Premier Greg Selinger has stood by Kinew, lauding him for turning his life around.
While he apologizes unequivocally for his past lyrics, Kinew is less apologetic for his tweets, calling them “satire” of his own privileged lifestyle.
“When push comes to shove, are you going to find a stronger advocate for Indigenous people, for the kids in Attawapiskat? I don’t think so.
“I hope over the course of this campaign and over the course of my career … I prove to people I’m not just the Indigenous guy. I hope that people recognize that I’m a leader.”