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Wab Kinew, the NDP leader vying to be Manitoba’s next premier, addresses criminal past

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Wab Kinew, leader of the Manitoba NDP, speaks to party faithful at an event at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg on Aug. 16.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew laid bare his difficult past Wednesday as he fights to maintain a tight lead over the governing Progressive Conservatives to become Manitoba’s first Indigenous premier on Oct. 3.

Mr. Kinew, responding to attack ads that started appearing in the spring, delivered a personal speech at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg that addressed his flaws, his indigeneity and Manitoba’s worsening violent crime problem.

He acknowledged his past misconduct, which includes convictions for an assault on a taxi driver and impaired driving; and he confronted negative stereotypes of Indigenous people, while not denying the reality that they are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system. He defended himself by insisting that “tough justice” was the reason he found a path forward to a responsible life of accomplishment:

“Let me be perfectly clear – being held accountable by the justice system was a necessary step. It forced me to confront the fact I needed to change my life, apologize and tackle my addictions.”

Mr. Kinew called out his Progressive Conservative rivals and third-party partners for attack ads that he said are thinly veiled dog whistles aimed at stirring up racism and fear about his Indigenous background.

“Why would Heather Stefanson and the PCs, who’ve been so terrible on crime, want to talk about crime during this election?” asked Mr. Kinew, who is Anishinaabe and a member of the Onigaming First Nation, near Kenora, Ont.

“Because it’s not about crime – it’s about me. And it’s at least partially about the fact that I’m somebody who sometimes wears my hair in a braid.”

The NDP had been leading in polls until spring, when the Progressive Conservatives began rolling out attack ads reminding voters of Mr. Kinew’s interactions with the police and the justice system when he was a young man, said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

“No question there are coded politics at play, said Kelly Saunders, a political science professor at Brandon University. “The Progressive Conservatives are trying to link Manitobans’ fears over crime and the sense that crime is getting worse with Wab Kinew, who has a criminal record.”

One ad from a political organization called the Canada Growth Council features Mr. Kinew wearing a black leather jacket and pointing his fingers like a gun. The text says Mr. Kinew wants to defund police and opposes stricter bail reform. (In response, Mr. Kinew said Wednesday: “I will never defund the police. I support tougher bail measures.”)

The same group recently sent a mass text message to voters “reminding everyone who loves Manitoba to avoid electing Wab Kinew (a convicted criminal) and the NDP this fall.”

Mr. Kinew said Wednesday that his political opponents “think I’m running from my past, but actually, my past is the reason I’m running. If we as individuals can find a way to walk a better road, then our province can do it, too.”

Prof. Thomas said the attack ads “work with a segment of the voting public because they refer to real events and reinforce undercurrents of racism, mistrust, anxiety and frustration.”

Wednesday’s speech, Prof. Thomas said, “did not, and could not, convert everyone to a more positive, confident view of Kinew’s leadership.” But it didn’t have to, he added: “He only had to achieve success with a minority of unaligned voters.”

To pollster Mary Agnes Welch, a principal with Probe Research, the Oct. 3 election hinges on whether Winnipeggers, particularly women, are willing to accept Mr. Kinew’s redemption story.

She believes Wednesday’s speech was “carefully tailored” to suburban women in key ridings.

“The question is, will the message, arriving at the tail end of summer, be heard? Does it get mentioned at the cottage this weekend? It could be effective – as long as people are paying attention.”

To Prof. Saunders, the speech was also remarkable for its substance: “We’re so used to hearing spin and virtue-signalling from politicians. They are so averse to taking risks. It’s hard to put yourself out there. Wab Kinew took a risk today in a way he felt was important for him as a human, as an Indigenous man and as a political leader.

“This was authentic, and personal, and brave,” she said.

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