Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/3/2016 (513 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s been two weeks since I ended a column on Wab Kinew without sharing the rest of the story. How it ended.
I had approached the NDP’s prized but problematic provincial election candidate directly after a news conference where I had aggressively questioned him over the apparent contradiction of a self-professed champion of his indigenous community tweeting about riding in a limo and "feeling really bad" for a community of impoverished aboriginal children. Later, as Premier Greg Selinger stood by his man taking questions, Kinew responded in his own passive-aggressive way. By locking eyes and attempting to stare me down. Like a guy in a bar looking for a fight.
The column concluded this way: "And now I finally know who Wab Kinew is."
But I wanted to know more about Kinew, the immensely ambitious, gifted and yet seemingly still angry and self-destructive young man who is running against Liberal Leader Rana Bokhari and Progressive Conservative candidate Audrey Gordon in Fort Rouge. So, the following Monday I bought his recently published book. There were parts of the autobiographical The Reason You Walk — his feeling targeted racially as a child, his struggle as a teenager with his indigenous identity and his apparently difficult relationship with his residential school survivor father that obviously affected Wab then and even now. Sometimes in a good way, though, given he writes he threatened to resign his job at the CBC if it didn’t change its policy of referring to people such as his father as former residential school students, instead of survivors.
Before I read the book, though, I read a letter to the editor Kinew sent to the Free Press more than 10 years ago. A life-changing letter, as it turned out. In the book, Kinew briefly alludes to the letter being "about Canada’s Olympic hockey team." But that’s not what it was really about. It centred on an incident involving then-Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi, who was charged criminally when, during a game, he chased down, sucker-punched and, ultimately, ended the career of Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche. The title of the letter had a familiar ring given Kinew’s recent apologies for the way he tweets.
"Mistakes are in the past."
"I am a young man with a criminal record," Kinew wrote, "and have felt the pain and frustration of losing out on jobs and opportunities because of it. I refuse to believe that at 23 years of age my life should be over because of the mistakes I have made in the past. For this reason, I want Todd Bertuzzi to represent Canada in Turin and to bring home a gold medal, so that he can show all the other youth in my situation that in spite of our faults, we can still contribute positively to our communities and to our countries."
Far from his life being over, that letter from a young man trying to get his boozing and brawling under control got it rolling. Back then, Kinew’s mistakes included a police chase that resulted in a DUI and two arrests for assault. One of them involved a taxi driver who came to the defence of another cabbie Kinew had stiffed for the fare. And while the letter suggests he wasn’t working at the time, and that it was because of the criminal record, the book suggests otherwise. He writes that after he graduated from university in May 2003 he was doing construction, warehouse and manufacturing jobs. While he applied for other jobs, he rarely got a call back or a second interview. "This had nothing to do with my legal troubles," he added, "but everything to do with me being a young native man who wore baggy clothes in a city where that look is equated with being a gangster."
Regardless, the letter had a profound impact on Kinew’s life. A producer at CBC Winnipeg’s morning radio show invited him to "turn it into something" for them. And Kinew’s years with the CBC — his reason for talking — had begun. But the letter wasn’t the only life-altering event I happened upon while getting to know more about Kinew. In 2013, he told George Stroumboulopoulos meeting Barack Obama — while the future American president was campaigning in 2008 — "changed my life."
"Before that I was very skeptical. I thought that, you know, for a person of colour to achieve in mainstream society that it would be, you know, as a token."
It was the way Obama walked in the room and engaged with people — his charisma — that wowed Kinew.
"And I thought, holy cow, this guy is going to win. Not because he’s a token. He’s going to win because he’s better at playing the game than anybody else out there right now. And you know, that was a tremendous eye-opening experience for me."
Why? Because now, as he expressed it to Stroumboulopoulos, "you cannot tell me that the road to the top is not open."
Who knows how that will end for Kinew? But I should tell you how it ended two weeks ago, after I walked up to Kinew, shook his hand, and asked him what that stare-down was all about.
"I wanted you to know I was here," he replied.
Oh, I knew he was there, all right. And I can tell you how the close-up version of the stare made me feel. That walking up and offering my hand to him first was a good idea, because you know what they say. A man can’t hit you when you’re shaking his hand.