Kinew's coronation as NDP leader comes with tough questions

Wab Kinew is now the leader of the NDP. But questions about his past will likely never go away. And some won't let them.

What does a 14-year-old assault case say, exactly, about Wab Kinew?

Delegates to the NDP leadership convention voted for Kinew despite his past, but will the rest of Manitoba voters be so forgiving? (Tyson Koschik CBC)

There may never be a moment of clarity where anyone can truly know why the police charged Wab Kinew with two counts of assault in 2003.

Kinew says it never happened and the woman who alleged the attack, Tara Hart, has only her word and the support of her family (who spoke to the Winnipeg Free Press) to back up that he threw her across a room and caused severe rug burns to her legs.

Attempting to look into Kinew's past leaves the public with a gap in their knowledge that makes it difficult to draw any final conclusions. 

As Kinew moved into his new office as Leader of the Opposition Monday, instead of reveling in a moment or focusing on where he will take his party into the future, he again faced questions about events from 14 years ago.

He reiterated Hart's version of events was incorrect, but emphasized he was sorry he'd caused her family the trouble.

When asked specifically what he remembers of the events Hart described, Kinew answered this way:

"I know what is being alleged, and when I think back to our relationship this was somebody who was important to me and there weren't incidents like what is being described, but I do know it takes a lot for people to make a statement; to come forward. And so I do realize that because I put my name on a ballot that this issue did get brought up again for some people. For the family as well. I do accept responsibility for that," Kinew said.

Kinew wouldn't elaborate any further and has stated in previous interview he doesn't remember why the Crown stayed the charges against him. 
Wab Kinew's first day in the office of Leader of the Opposition meant facing more questions about his past. (Gary Solilak CBC)

CBC News asked the prosecutor in charge of the case in 2003 why it didn't go further and was told it was not a public matter.

There were few details in the court file beyond dates, times and places of the proceedings. It shed little light on what actually may have occurred or why the case was eventually stayed. Transcripts of the appearances were requested but provided no further clarity.

Retrying a case from 14 years ago in the court of opinion — without the advantage of evidence, lawyers and a judge  — we have hit a wall of missing facts.

That doesn't mean many people haven't decided for themselves. A debate is happening in many corners of Manitoba.

In the aftermath of Kinew's victory Saturday one of his Indigenous supporters, clutching a sheaf of eagle feathers and a purple Kinew sign, said she was "totally 100 per cent behind Wab" and saw his victory as a "great vision for the youth ... the male youth who are struggling with the law and violence and addiction. That they can come form that place and be anything they want to be," she said.

But a scan of social media shows there is nothing near a consensus on Kinew's past or his ability to be a changed man.

Bloggers and Facebookers and Tweeters have chimed in both believing Kinew's version of events and supporting Tara Hart and her family. Some are angry at the NDP for not standing up for an alleged victim of domestic violence.

Clearly someone is wrong. These events (which prompted an investigation and charges) either happened or did not. At this time it seems impossible to ever know with certainty.
Wab Kinew maintained in several interviews that he did not assault his former girlfriend. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Perhaps that underscores the complexity and crisis of so many domestic violence cases (Manitoba is second in the country for these incidents) for law enforcement, courts and victims. Proving it happened or didn't is difficult and traumatic for those involved. 

And then there is the overlay of politics. Kinew's leadership rival Steve Ashton repeatedly demanded more details of the incident, only to fall silent on the matter at the last minute in his speech to delegates at the convention.

The Progressive Conservative party waited scant minutes after Kinew was ordained leader of the NDP before pressing play on a website containing a scattershot of his past Tweets and lyrics from rap songs, focusing on some of the more egregious misogynistic and homophobic comments he's made.
Leadership rival Steve Ashton dogged Kinew with questions about his past, but the answer was always that a domestic assault never happened. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

NDP delegates were armed with much of this information before they voted overwhelmingly on Saturday for Kinew. 

But the next vote the rookie leader of the opposition will face is by the province, in an election.

Political scientist and U of M professor emeritus Paul Thomas says he's never seen a situation like this in Manitoba or even Canadian politics, where a newly minted leader of a party faced such scrutiny.

"I mean here we have the major political party choosing a major Indigenous leader and within half an hour the attack ads are directed at him so they don't even get to savour the euphoria, the victory. It's right into defending yourself," Thomas told CBC News.

Thomas said Kinew will have to do more than apologize and Monday afternoon in his new office the rookie leader acknowledged that is true, pledging again to live by example and prove his worth to Manitobans.

Kinew says he may even reach out to Tara Hart and her family, but not in a way that would be public.

But will voters in 2020 have answers to whether Kinew did harm his former girlfriend? So far, that has proved impossible to determine.

And will Manitobans be able to decide if Kinew, as he and his followers maintain, has indeed become a changed man, and rehabilitated himself? If his apologies are sincere?

Also a debate with more than one side.


Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.