OTTAWA — NDP Leader Wab Kinew is distancing himself from left-wing activists, saying they promote "hate and oppression" by flying the Soviet flag.
"There is no appeasement that I have to do as a leader," Kinew said Tuesday in an interview on the sidelines of a union conference in Ottawa.
On Monday, Southdale MLA Andrew Smith tweeted a photo of Kinew and other NDP MLAs and candidates at a Winnipeg rally last Saturday beside the red flag of the Soviet Union.
Smith decried them for supporting "a tyrannical and oppressive regime" which his maternal grandparents escaped after relatives died in the Holodomor, the forced starvation of Ukrainians.
Seeing the NDP MLAs standing beside the Soviet Flag reminds me of when I took over the constituency office from the former Southdale NDP MLA, I found a Soviet Flag. My grandparents fled to Canada from the tyranny of the socialist #SovietUnion. #mbpoli pic.twitter.com/c66AyqVvGy— Andrew Smith (@smith4southdale) May 27, 2019
"I was very disheartened to see anybody would be standing, knowingly, in a picture like that," he said in an interview.
By Tuesday, the PC Party added a caption to the photo, and was tweeting it from its party account.
Kinew said he suspected the PCs were trying to link the NDP with radicals ahead of a snap election.
"This is something that the Tories have kicked up to cause a distraction," Kinew said.
"That said, I'm not a communist sympathizer by any means. I recognize the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China are responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people," he said, describing himself as "not even much of socialist — I'm a progressive young person."
On Twitter, Smith also claimed he found a Soviet flag in this constituency office he took over from the NDP’s Erin Selby.
That was news to Selby, who said she and her former staff only ever had Manitoba and Canada flags.
"None of us quite understand where this is coming from," she said. "A lot of people see it as a symbol of hate and oppression, and representing crimes against humanity."
Smith said it was no false flag — he said a staffer came across the flag, tucked under the carpet when they were moving into the 119 Vermillion Rd. office in 2016.
The flag flap has upset Mieke Ruth, who helps runs a socialist club at the University of Winnipeg.
"It’s sad to see Wab capitulate so easily," said Ruth.
She said Soviet Union was "far from a utopia" but deserves a nuanced unpacking of its successes and failures, instead of dismissing it as "a horrible human-rights abuser."
I condemn all symbols of hate and oppression, including the Soviet flag. I am reaffirming my commitment to stand against all genocides and crimes against humanity— Wab Kinew (@WabKinew) May 27, 2019
Her campus group struggles with whether to use the hammer and sickle, because the "bad optics" draw controversy instead of debate.
University of Manitoba geopolitics professor Radhika Desai said Kinew should have instead stood up to "typical mainstream anti-communism" that dates back to the Cold War.
Desai said the whole point of people bringing the flag to the demonstration harks back to the role of communists in the 1919 General Strike, which helped build labour rights.
"These are the radical traditions to which we owe many of the things we are thankful for, whether it is a socialized health-care system, public education or the welfare state," said Desai, head of Canada’s Society for Socialist Studies.