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Premier Wab Kinew: From rapper to reporter to Manitoba's top political office


Rap artist. Journalist. Economics student.


Wab Kinew's path as a young man, including several brushes with the law and some convictions, did not appear a likely path to becoming the first First Nations premier of a province.

Kinew and the Manitoba NDP won a majority government Tuesday night, defeating the governing Progressive Conservatives and making Canadian history.

"I was given a second chance in life. I'd like to think that I made good on that opportunity," Kinew said in his victory speech.

"My life became immeasurably better when I stopped making excuses and I started looking for a reason. And I found that reason in our family, I found that reason in our community and I found that reason in our province and country.

"So young people out there who want to change your life for the better: you can do it."

Kinew decided political office might be where he could make a difference when he entered his 30s.

One of the reasons, he has said, is what happened to the family of his wife, Lisa Monkman, whose mother was on social assistance in the 1980s and was given an opportunity for education and a career. A government program helped the family out of poverty. Monkman would follow up with her own education, go to medical school and become a physician.

"The trajectory of their lives was changed for the better -- through their own hard work, first and foremost, but they also had a few public policy interventions that were made at that time and helped," Kinew recalled in an interview.

"That's something that speaks to me -- education, economic improvement, people doing it themselves, but maybe a little bit of a nudge on the public policy side."

Kinew was born in Ontario and lived on the Onigaming First Nation as a young boy. His late father was a residential school survivor who endured horrific abuse and passed on to Kinew the importance of Anishinaabe culture and language.

Both Kinew's parents were well educated and wanted the same for him. He spent some of his formative years in a suburban neighbourhood in southern Winnipeg and graduated from a private high school.

Kinew studied economics in university and became a rising star at CBC, where he hosted shows including the national documentary series "8th Fire." He was later hired by the University of Winnipeg as its first director of Indigenous inclusion.

Courted by a few political parties at the provincial and federal levels, Kinew opted to run for the Manitoba New Democrats in 2016. The party's then-leader, Greg Selinger, had been a teacher in the education program that Monkman's mother had taken, Kinew said in a 2016 social media post.

Kinew was touted as a star candidate and was elected in the NDP stronghold of Fort Rouge in Winnipeg. But evidence of his past wrongdoings had begun to surface.

Lyrics from one of his songs in the early 2000s had him bragging about slapping women's genitalia. An online post from 2009 surfaced in which he mused about whether it was possible to get avian flu from "kissing fat chicks."

There were also criminal charges and questions about how honest he had been about them.

In his 2015 memoir, "The Reason You Walk," Kinew admitted to some of his legal troubles from 2003 and 2004 -- convictions related to impaired driving and an assault on a taxi driver -- and apologized for his past behaviour. Kinew later received a record suspension, commonly called a pardon, for all his convictions.

But the book painted a tamer picture of the taxi assault than the facts read into the court record, which said Kinew had used racial slurs and punched the driver in the face.

The book also did not mention two domestic assault charges Kinew had faced in 2003 involving his girlfriend at the time. Those charges were stayed several months later and Kinew has consistently denied that he assaulted the former girlfriend.

When he launched his successful bid for NDP leader in 2017, Kinew said he had no more skeletons in his closet. That was four months before the domestic assault charges came to light.

Now in his early 40s, Kinew said he turned his life around years ago and his troubled past is one reason he ran for the premier's office.

"I believe that because I've been able to make good on a second chance at life ... that I have something to contribute in how we can improve things."

Kinew ran a disciplined election campaign over the last four weeks. He focused on health care and held news conferences outside hospitals in suburban Winnipeg that had seen their emergency departments scaled back under the Tory government.

He promised to balance the budget, touted plans for economic growth and adopted a centrist approach.

He also pledged support for searching the private Prairie Green Landfill north of Winnipeg for the remains of two slain Indigenous women.

Searching the landfill became an election campaign issue when the Tories took out ads, including large billboards, promising to "stand firm" in opposing a costly search due to safety concerns. Indigenous leaders and others loudly criticized the ads.

"I don't think it's appropriate for a political party to use other Manitobans as a political prop," Kinew said during the campaign.

When another Tory ad targeted him for his previous charges, Kinew called the move desperate.

"I'm pleased that the Progressive Conservatives are now attacking me instead of women in the landfill," he told reporters.

"I signed up for this, families of the murder victims did not sign up for this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2023 Top Stories

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