A leadership victory may not end questions about Kinew's past

Wab Kinew may continue his ascent in politics by taking the reins of the NDP, but questions continue about his past and assault charges he faced 14 years ago.

NDP leadership hopeful says he will win any conversation "about the old me"

NDP MLA Wab Kinew knows political opponents will not let the past rest, but offers ideas for the future. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Unlike the last page of his 2015 book, Wab Kinew knows some things don't have an ending.

Even if he continues his rapid political rise and takes the leadership of the New Democratic Party at its convention this weekend, Kinew knows opponents will never let his past fade away completely.

"I have made peace with myself with the fact that as long as I put my name on a ballot, my opponents will want to talk about my past. And as long as they are talking about the old 'me', it is a sign they are the same old 'them', and I think I can win that conversation," Kinew says. 

Kinew outed himself in his memoir, The Reason You Walk, about brushes with the law, alcoholism and violence. But as the former rapper and broadcaster has moved from back-bench NDP MLA to critic to now possibly leader of the party, questions continue to be raised about some things he didn't raise himself.

Such as two charges of assault against a woman that were related to an incident in 2003. The charges were ultimately stayed by the crown.

The renewed interest came from a perhaps unlikely place; a member of his own party and his rival to lead the New Democrats, Steve Ashton. 
NDP leadership challenger Steve Ashton has challenged Kinew to be specific on the details of his past. (CBC News )

Kinew, Ashton says, has not been near forth-coming enough about those circumstances, and is doing disservice to women who are victims of violence. Indeed a member of Kinew's own party and a victim of ritual abuse at the hand of her former partner came forward to challenge him. 

So on the near-eve of the NDP's leadership convention, Kinew fields more questions about his past, and acknowledges they will come up again. And again.

Does Kinew think it's fair they keep surfacing?

"There is a difference about how I feel as an individual and the way I have to conduct myself as a leader. And as a leader, it's not about me. It's about doing right for the people of Manitoba," Kinew says.

Profile of NDP leadership hopeful Wab Kinew

5 years ago
Duration 2:29
Wab Kinew may continue his ascent in politics by taking the reins of the NDP, but questions continue about his past and assault charges he faced 14 years ago.

Still, by not filling in the gaps on the other charges he faced and were subsequently stayed, Kinew remains open to questions.

"In this instance, even if I would like to share details, the right thing for me to do is not to add additional stress to this other person," he says. Kinew says he did once speak to the woman involved, before the issue became public to give warning the circumstances would become public.

He says he didn't ask the person for anything or suggest any response she might make: "One human to another, here's a head-up," Kinew says.

What Kinew will say is a promise to advocate for victims of domestic violence and be an ally of women who want to "lead a life free of harrassment." 

There are many, many issues that face Manitoba that don't hinge on Kinew's past, however.

Health care premiums? An instant "no."

Kinew is swift to condemn the PC government's musings that a premium to pay for health care is an option.

"We'll oppose, as the NDP. And if they do bring in a premium and we get a chance to form government again, on day-one we will repeal a health premium," Kinew says.

Kinew sees the institution of a premium as a potential battleground issue if he's the leader of the NDP.

"This could be one of the election issues in 2020," he says.

Two big priorities:  job creation and health 

If Wab Kinew does win his party's leadership this weekend, he will set the tone for the NDP going toward the next election and his first priorities for Manitoba if he managed to beat the Tories are clear.
Kinew says the rapidly changing tech world something Manitoba must keep up with to thrive. (Remi Authier/CBC)

"We need a jobs plan for the next 30 years, because what we are seeing now are big technology changes that are threatening to put a lot of people out of work, and that is in some of the biggest industries in our province; artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, automation in manufacturing, globalization," Kinew says.

"Jobs plan," Kinew is reminded, are just two words and not a strategy. His response is a promise to work closely with business, students, labour leaders and community members to design a jobs plan for Manitoba. 

"It means making public investments to create job opportunities that are big here in the province - agriculture, manufacturing, transportation." he says.

That, Kinew says, must be backed up by major investments in both secondary and post-secondary education.

Kinew says the recent disclosure of what giant online retailer Amazon is looking for in a community for its second headquarters is a good place to start.

"That Amazon document really shows that if you want to create jobs for the future, a plan for the economy of tomorrow, you need more than just an economic development plan - you need an education plan, a health plan, a social safety net plan..."

"We need to protect health services. It has to be more than counter-acting what Pallister is doing with his cuts to health, we also have to have a real plan to make our system sustainable," Kinew says.

Demographics are more to blame for rising health care costs, Kinew argues. People are aging and need more medical help and some segments of the population have special needs - for diabetes, MS or renal issues.

"Focus heavily on prevention," Kinew says.

Mental health, pharmacare, primary prevention such as diet and exercise, Kinew says, will keep people out of the emergency and operating rooms. And savings from fewer surgeries and hospital visits will be re-invested in ER's and acute care. 

Manitoba is mired in debt and deficit woes and has had two credit rating down-grades, making it more expensive for the province to borrow, so the inevitable question is, "how will you do some of these things and still balance the books?"

Money in-money out

Kinew says Manitoba's fiscal issues are less on expenditures and more about revenues, which have to grow.

"The challenge for future governments is to find way to grow the economy. That's how we are going to return to balance," Kinew says. "you can't cut your way out of a budgetary crisis."

Kinew believes the business community would agree.

"I don't think there is too many business leaders in Manitoba who would say that making 15 per cent cuts across the board is a wise strategic decision. I think any leader in business knows you have to make investments for the future and in some cases you have to spend money to make money," Kinew asserts. 

Hydro, Kinew says, for example, is an economic engine that has been invested in by the province and has helped keep Manitoba out of recession. Those investments, he says, should continue and wants to see a "modernization"  of Hydro as a "renewable energy" company and recognize it has an economic development role.

This is a position in direct contrast to the current board of the crown corporation, which has said repeatedly through its chair, Sandy Riley, that the crown corporation's debt is a threat to Manitoba's fiscal stability.

When pushed for a nugget that people don't know about the very public life of Wab Kinew, he admits to being a "pretty big computer nerd," but not in gaming or hours on social media. Kinew is an app developer on the side and is working on a master's degree involving machine translation of the Ojibway language.

This, Kinew promises, is the "NDP 2.0," and promises the party will look at management practices and innovation needed for tomorrow.


Sean Kavanagh

Former CBC reporter

Sean Kavanagh was a reporter for CBC Manitoba from 2003-21. He covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections.