Wab Kinew continues to deny the account of a former partner who says she was thrown across a room by the NDP MLA 14 years ago, but acknowledges her words will be a challenge for him as the Opposition New Democrats meet this weekend to decide whether he should lead the party.
Tara Hart told the Canadian Press on Thursday that she lived with Kinew in 2003.
One night, during an argument, Hart alleges Kinew flung her across the living room, leaving her with rug burn on her legs.
- Woman at centre of Wab Kinew domestic assault allegations says she was thrown
- Wab Kinew speaks out after anonymous emails disclose past charges
The incident prompted her to end their two-year relationship, move out and contact RCMP to file a complaint, Hart said.
Kinew was charged in June 2003 with two counts of assault, court records show, but at some point the charges were stayed.
Kinew, considered to be the front-runner in the race to lead the NDP, apologized to victims of domestic violence who may have been triggered by the story that has dogged him during the campaign, but refused to take responsibility for the allegations, which he said are untrue.
"I am sorry that me putting my name forward in the public sphere has brought this out into light again and I accept responsibility for that. I also accept responsibility for what I did to contribute to the end of our relationship, but I can't accept responsibility for things I did not do," Kinew told CBC News Friday. "No one comes forward to make an accusation lightly, and this person was very important to me at one time in my life and I feel a lot of compassion for them."
Kinew said he will continue to be "committed towards trying to end domestic violence, violence against women [and] gender-based discrimination in our society," but acknowledged the allegations are going to be a difficult issue for him going into Saturday's leadership convention.
"It really gets to an important but difficult tension in this conversation, which is that many people — myself included — say 'I believe victims' and there's a real important reason to say so and it is because mainly women, but all victims of domestic violence, face real barriers to getting justice in our justice system," he said. "Yet at the same time, there's a tension between that and one of our most important civil liberties, which is the right to due process, presumption of innocence.
"I don't have the answers to that conversation but I am going to continue to be part of the conversation."
Court records show Kinew was charged in June 2003 with two counts of assault on Hart. A Crown attorney and Kinew's lawyer appeared in court several times between January and June 2004.
At some point in the summer, the Crown stayed the charges. The court records provide no explanation for why the charges were stayed. Hart was living outside Winnipeg and said she never heard from the Crown as to why the charges were stayed.
Kinew said Friday he had "a bunch of different things before the court" at the time and he doesn't recall what led to the charges being stayed.
"I've been very open and honest that I was in a difficult period in my life, when I was in my early 20s," he said. "The person who is running to lead the NDP and who may one day get the honour to run for premier of Manitoba is the person that I am today, it's not the man that I was when I was 20 or 21 years old."
University of Manitoba law professor Karen Busby said she could not speak to the specific allegations but in general, charges are stayed in domestic violence cases for two main reasons: if the victim is reluctant to testify or if there are inconsistencies in the victim's story.
"If they have given inconsistent stories, you have to prove these cases beyond a reasonable doubt, and if you can impugn the credibility in some way about the story and then the charges would be stayed," she said. "The Crown has an obligation to stay a charge if they don't think there is a reasonable chance of conviction."
Kinew, now 35, says he's changed and grown over the last 14 years and the experiences from his past make him better able to help others looking to make positive changes in their lives.
"I don't hear anyone criticize how I conduct myself as a public servant today, I conduct myself with honesty and integrity and I've been open and honest that I lived a tumultuous life and I did have many self destructive moments — even moments where I didn't treat other people well," he said. "I've been honest about that throughout, and I think that that makes me a legit candidate for the leadership."
'I support Wab 100%'
Kinew's fellow NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine said Friday she stands by Kinew and continues to support his leadership bid, despite Hart's claims.
"I am a firm believer in people's ability to change," Fontaine said. "We all have the capacity to change for the better or for the worse, and I really have seen a tremendous growth in Wab."
"I have witnessed firsthand his change and his growth, certainly as an MLA but also as a community member and certainly as a husband and a father," she said. "In the context of a leadership race, in a context of the work that we need to do as the NDP, in respect to all of the chaos that is going on in this province, I support Wab 100 per cent."
Fontaine has been a longtime advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women. When asked if her support means she doesn't believe Hart's account of the fight, Fontaine said it wasn't fair for her to comment on an incident she doesn't know anything about.
"I absolutely have always taken the stand that women are telling the truth," she said. "What I am saying is that I also do believe that a fundamental component to dealing with domestic violence is supporting our men to be active participants in fighting against domestic violence."
'For me, it's the victim'
"Nahanni Fontaine feels that he is healing, he is getting better, he is making amends, and that's great… it's your own personal comfort zone — it's just for me, it's the victim," said Sampert. "I wanted to make sure that people knew that there's a living person out there that had been with this individual and had a story to tell."
Sampert says she's not so sure Kinew has done what he's needed to do to grow from his past experiences, pointing to the fact it took a leak to media about the stayed charges before the leadership candidate addressed them publically.
"For someone who wants to seek political office to continue to obfuscate, to continue to deny, to continue to not tell the full truth until someone has to throw the evidence at them — let's be honest do you want someone who's the premier of the province to continually not tell the truth until you have evidence shoved in your face?"
Be up front about your background: Ashton
Steve Ashton, Kinew's rival for the leadership, agrees. If you are going to be running for premier, he said, you have to be up front about your personal background.
"I think the real question there is why he didn't disclose this," Ashton said. "I will let people be a judge of whether he has changed, but I do think we have to take domestic violence very seriously. I did call on Wab to own up."
Royce Koop, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba, said Kinew is the still the odds-on favourite to become the NDP's new leader at this weekend's convention, but adds the allegations will make it hard for Kinew — and the party — to fight the next provincial election.
"It will certainly be a tainted victory — he's going to have to deal with these charges even after the campaign is over," said Koop. "Leadership races are supposed to be great times for parties and this kind of outcome is just the worst possible thing you could imagine for a party."