'People have said that I'm angry.… The truth of the matter is I am': Jenny Motkaluk on her mayoral run

She knew poverty as a child. She now lives off Wellington Crescent. Mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk relates her life story, her motivation to run and the disjunction between her private self and public persona.

'I'm a big believer in doing something,' says North End-raised, River Heights-based Winnipeg mayoral candidate

Mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk, outside her Ness Avenue campaign headquarters last week. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Jenny Motkaluk starts her day by spooning three teaspoons of sugar into her coffee, joking she needs to be sweeter.

The Winnipeg mayoral candidate, who is mounting the most organized and credible challenge to incumbent mayor Brian Bowman during this election, says she knows she comes across to some voters as antagonistic.

During debate appearances and campaign policy announcements in recent months, the 46-year-old business development consultant has taken dozens of direct jabs at Bowman by poking fun at his image-conscious persona, deflating his urbanist policies and suggesting the incumbent is a Polyanna when it comes to crime.​

There's a belief challengers have to be positive in order to wrest voters away from incumbents. In one-on-one conversation, Motkaluk is animated and amiable.

Place her behind a podium, and a more aggressive person emerges.

"People have said that I'm angry. 'Mean, angry Jenny is coming out.' And the truth of the matter is I am, which is why I'm running for mayor," says Motkaluk, sitting in the living room of the Wellington Crescent neighbourhood home she shares with her husband, Trevor Sprague — a partner at consulting firm MNP — and their daughter, Emily.

"I understand why that persona might exist or why that perception might be," she says, adding supporters urge her to both be nicer and meaner.

Jenny Motkaluk and her daughter, Emily, at breakfast. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

"It's difficult for me to manage my emotions and not tip the scales so far toward 'angry, angry Jenny' that it turns off a lot of voters. That's the danger," she says.

"I'm a big believer in doing something. What I don't want is the hand-wringing and the high-level, 'Oh, maybe we'll create some sort of plan and some sort of vision without a plan.'"

The recruiter who became a recruit

To Motkaluk, that "vision without a plan" belongs to Bowman, who won a landslide victory in the wide-open 2014 mayoral race with the help of strong support in Winnipeg polls that voted Conservative in the provincial election two years later.

Motkaluk, who has worked in business development in the city as both a consultant and for Yes Winnipeg over the past decade, said she's among the voters who grew disenchanted with Bowman as his rookie mayoral term wore on. 

"For all of the fall of 2017, I — like a lot of other Winnipeggers — was asking the question, 'Who is going to challenge Brian Bowman? Somebody has to,'" she says, citing complaints about Bowman's push to impose growth fees, support for rapid transit and desire to reopen Portage and Main to pedestrians.

Motkaluk says she initially planned to aid a high-profile candidate in a quest to become the first challenger to knock off an incumbent mayor in this city since Stephen Juba defeated George Sharpe in 1956. North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty had mused about a run for months, but was noncommital at best.

During the Christmas holidays, Motkaluk was attending a family gathering — she has four brothers and three sisters — when her Waterloo, Ont.-based sister Susan suggested Jenny should run herself.

Jenny Motkaluk with her brothers Rob, Greg and Cory in 2002. (Submitted by Jenny Motkaluk)

The candidacy was launched in January over glasses of wine in her living room, with her husband, Trevor, and her friend Tracey Maconachie, who ran as a Progressive Conservative candidate in River Heights in the 2016 provincial election.

Motkaluk said she made 200 calls between January and March in an effort to determine whether she had enough support to mount a campaign.

It was a big leap for a consultant whose previous political experience involved losing the 2010 city council race in the Mynarski ward to Ross Eadie.

But Jenny Motkaluk already had a powerful support base in the form of her seven brothers and sisters.

From 'a beautiful little life to dead broke'

Motkaluk spent the early part of her life growing up in a home in the North End's Luxton neighbourhood, on Matheson Avenue east of Main Street.

One day in Grade 5, her mother walked out the door, leaving her father, Ed, with their eight children.

"It was winter, like January, and my mom was packed up. She was standing at the door, ready to walk out," Motkaluk recalls.

"That was bad enough. And then a couple of weeks later, I came home and literally there were people, like, crawling all over the house, cutting down the light fixtures, ripping down the drapes, ripping up the carpet. There was fire sale going on."

Jenny Motkaluk at her cabin on Gambier Island, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, in 2006. (Submitted by Jenny Motkaluk)

Motkaluk says while she's still unclear what happened between her parents, the bank foreclosed on her childhood home. She and her siblings wound up in a rental on Elgin Avenue, near the Health Sciences Centre.

"All of a sudden we went from having a beautiful little life to dead broke. Like, I mean broke broke, to the point of, 'Is there bus fare? No? OK, well, I guess we're walking today.' I didn't get a winter coat that winter, just to put it into perspective," she says.

Ed Motkaluk and his kids eventually moved to St. Vital. Jenny says her siblings remain close because they had to rely on each other while the family was impoverished.

She said this experience also explains the success of her siblings, whose ranks include Bison Transport route planner Rob, firefighter brother Greg, real estate appraiser Cory and John, one of the founders of Bayview Construction, a Winnipeg firm that employs 300 people and was awarded $19 million in city road renewal contracts this year alone.

"We had a rough go for a while, when we were small, and my dad had all of us," she says. "What's amazing is all eight kids are successful, one way or another."

Motkaluk says she and her siblings understand the challenges faced by disadvantaged Winnipeggers — and what it takes to pull yourself out of poverty.

"So many people struggle to understand that I'm the one that gets that. I get it more than most, having lived that experience," she says.

"I'm really proud of my success. I'm not shy about it."

Restaurant server to biotech sales manager

Jenny Motkaluk graduated from high school two years early, at age 16. She then took molecular biology at McGill University in Montreal and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on her way to becoming the first member of her family to attain a post-secondary degree.

She returned to Winnipeg and worked as a server at the Cactus Club after graduation before convincing the owner of Fisher Scientific, a vendor of technical supplies to universities, to allow her in the door as a receptionist.

Motkaluk then worked her way up through a series of sales positions before she was managing accounts across Western Canada. Based out of Vancouver, she wound up travelling across four provinces for as many as 200 days a year for the next 12 years, working for four different companies.

Jenny Motkaluk with her dog, Jack, in 2006. (Submitted by Jenny Motkaluk)

She married for the first time in 1999. The marriage withered beneath the weight of her heavy travel commitments three years later.

"Starter marriage," she says. "We kayaked, mountain biked and played ultimate Frisbee. We lived this really cool, Vancouver lifestyle. I had tons of Air Miles."

By 2004, Motkaluk had enough with the life of a travelling salesperson. She quit her job, started tutoring high school students and eventually began working in enterprise software.

She then bought a house on Scotia Street in her old North End neighbourhood in Winnipeg, with the intention of renting it out.

Her sister Twyla had other plans. 

Twyla Motkaluk flew to Vancouver, packed up Jenny's stuff and convinced her to quit her job and drive back to Winnipeg.

"Sometimes, it pays to listen to your big sister," Motkaluk says. "My whole life changed when I came home."

'Are you crazy? No one beats an incumbent'

Within months of her return to Winnipeg, Motkaluk met her second husband at a cocktail party. She and Sprague went on their first date in March 2008 and were married that year in August. Their daughter, Emily, was born in 2009. 

Both are now part of the mayoral campaign. Trevor was conscripted to help write Motkaluk's taxation policy. Emily goes door-knocking with her mother.

Other members of the family, most notably the Toronto-based Twyla, have a large influence on the campaign.

Jenny Motkaluk and her husband, Trevor Sprague, in the kitchen of their home in Winnipeg's Wellington Crescent neighbourhood. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

Motkaluk also enlisted help from beyond her circle of friends and family in her effort to unseat Bowman. 

Former Winnipeg deputy chief administrator Alex Robinson, who's also a well-known Liberal fundraiser, helped bring in money shortly after the start of the campaign.

Toronto-based policy analyst Brian Kelcey, a former Sam Katz advisor who quit and turned against the former mayor, helped draw up policy for Motkaluk on a volunteer basis. Former Liberal publicist Dave Shorr also came aboard.

But Motkaluk still needed a campaign manager. She approached Keith Poulson, who had managed campaigns for provincial PC Rochelle Squires and former Tory MP Rod Bruinooge.

"He had a habit of defeating incumbents," she said. 

Poulson said he had every intention of dismissing Motkaluk when he sat down with her in May.

"When I met her, my intention was to say, 'Are you crazy? No one beats an incumbent mayor.' After an hour and a half, I walked out thinking she could do it," Poulson said in an interview in August.

Early in the campaign, Poulson and his team spent most of their efforts needling away at Bowman's support for rapid transit and reopening Portage and Main. They made policy announcements all summer in a successful effort to familiarize voters with Motkaluk's name.

Now, Robinson, Kelcey and Shorr are no longer with the campaign. Motkaluk says her inner circle now includes her sister Twyla, her friend Maconachie, publicist Dave MacKay and manager Poulson.

Less than two weeks before election day, their strategy involves trying to show Winnipeggers that Jenny Motkaluk and Brian Bowman are two very different candidates.

'Get to know me,' Motkaluk says

Back in her living room, Motkaluk says she's saddened by the disjunction between her private and public personas.

"People should really take the time to get to know me," she says, insisting some voters have misconceptions.

For starters, she says she has no problems with urbanism even though she's opposed to growth fees, rapid transit and reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians.

"I lived in Kitsilano. It was great," she says, referring to a high-density residential neighbourhood in Vancouver. "I loved every minute of it. Out my door, within 500 metres, I could walk to anything I wanted. I could buy a Bentley or an ice cream cone."

Nonetheless, she  says she opposes any urban-planning policies that prioritize high-density development over single-family homes.

"I also know that it's not up to any government to be proscriptive about what our lifestyles should be," she says.

Jenny Motkaluk, seen here at a Winnipeg Real Estate Board debate, says Brian Bowman refuses to talk to developers. 'In his determination to be able to say he's not beholden to special interests, he has classified virtually everybody as a special interest,' she says. (John Einarson/CBC)

Motkaluk has attracted the support of several Winnipeg developers who fell out with Bowman over growth fees in 2016.

"She understands the need for teamwork," says Eric Vogan, vice-president of Qualico, who complains the incumbent mayor talks of growing the city without enacting any land-use policies that would provide space for more people.

Bowman has repeatedly attempted to portray Motkaluk as being in bed with developers, going so far as to imply Winnipeg would return to the Sam Katz years if she is elected mayor.

She says the incumbent refuses to talk to developers.

"In his determination to be able to say he's not beholden to special interests, he has classified virtually everybody as a special interest," Motkaluk says. "Nobody practises the politics of fear and division like Brian Bowman."

She also defends her consultation with the Winnipeg Police Association on the same grounds, insisting she seeks expert advice and is not exaggerating the prevalence of crime in the city.

"There are some people, the mayor included, who will have us believe downtown Winnipeg has never been safer," she says before describing how she was threatened while shooting a campaign video on Main Street early one Friday evening this summer.

"If you take a walk, someone is going to threaten to stab you, and I'm not making that up and you know that it's true."

This is no hyperbole, says the former North Ender, who is promising a hard line on crime even as she pledges not to make substantial increases to the police budget.

"I'm running to beat Brian Bowman. I have every objective of being the mayor of Winnipeg."

How well do you know Jenny Motkaluk? We take a closer look at the mayoral candidate mounting the most organized challenge to incumbent Brian Bowman. 2:12

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.