November 23, 2017

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Kinew's checkered past a steep political challenge

In the midst of a leadership campaign he is expected to win, and on the precipice of becoming arguably the most prominent Aboriginal politician ever in Manitoba mainstream politics, Wab Kinew’s future is in doubt.

Last week, a series of anonymous emails made their way to Winnipeg media outlets, detailing several brushes with the law involving Kinew: an assault in 2004, for which he received a conditional discharge; a theft charge in 2006 that was stayed; and a domestic assault charge from 2003, which was also stayed.

These latest incidents come in addition to previously known incidents where Kinew had trouble with the law: a 2004 assault of a taxi driver and a DUI for refusing a breathalyzer. And a somewhat dubious past as a rap artist that saw him author sexist and homophobic lyrics.

When he was made aware of the emails last week, Kinew decided to go on the offensive, doing interviews with as many news organizations as possible and being as frank as possible.

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In the midst of a leadership campaign he is expected to win, and on the precipice of becoming arguably the most prominent Aboriginal politician ever in Manitoba mainstream politics, Wab Kinew’s future is in doubt.

Last week, a series of anonymous emails made their way to Winnipeg media outlets, detailing several brushes with the law involving Kinew: an assault in 2004, for which he received a conditional discharge; a theft charge in 2006 that was stayed; and a domestic assault charge from 2003, which was also stayed.

These latest incidents come in addition to previously known incidents where Kinew had trouble with the law: a 2004 assault of a taxi driver and a DUI for refusing a breathalyzer. And a somewhat dubious past as a rap artist that saw him author sexist and homophobic lyrics.

When he was made aware of the emails last week, Kinew decided to go on the offensive, doing interviews with as many news organizations as possible and being as frank as possible.

In those interviews, Kinew attempted to underline a major theme in his life and his political career: that he is no longer the angry, addicted and violent man he was earlier in his life. True to that claim, all of the newest incidents took place more than a decade ago during a dark period in Kinew’s life that he has spoken about publicly and written about in his memoir, The Reason You Walk.

"Some of this has been out before," Kinew said in an interview Sunday. "I’ve written about some of it in my book and in public speaking. I’ve made many references to being in trouble with the law, getting into fights, the addiction, the party lifestyle. But I’ve gone through a change, I’ve turned my life around. I’ve reconstituted my life and put myself on a positive track."

Where does this flurry of new revelations leave Kinew’s political career? In the words of one senior NDP insider, Kinew has now entered "uncharted waters."

It is standard practice for political parties to shun anyone with even a whiff of a criminal past. Most parties have developed detailed screening processes, demanding that prospective candidates fully disclose any past legal problems, offensive social media activity or financial problems.

Politicians unlucky enough to have undetected skeletons from their closets revealed in the middle of an election campaign can be assured of a swift revocation of their candidacy and a short but intense period of public shaming.

In this current environment, one important question arises about Kinew’s political future: does he deserve to be treated differently than other politicians with checkered pasts who were disowned and relegated to the trash bin of political history?

The Progressive Conservatives would argue Kinew should be subject to the same scrutiny and treatment. Over the weekend, Tory insiders focused largely on the fact the new revelations prove Kinew has not been completely honest about all of his past misdeeds. With a premier who has been dogged by allegations of dishonesty, Tories are desperate to see Kinew held to the same standards.

Still, the Tories are thrilled about the prospect of a Kinew-led NDP, largely because they do not believe the public will ever embrace an aboriginal who has been involved in a litany of run-ins with the law.

Although it’s certainly unclear whether Kinew’s ‘reformed-man’ narrative will be accepted by voters, his story does need to be separated, to some extent, from other recent examples of candidates being punted for ugly past revelations.

None of the incidents in Kinew’s life took place while he was a politician. As well, thanks to his books and his outreach with aboriginal youth, Kinew has been largely upfront about the kinds of mistakes he made earlier in his life, even if he has not discussed all the specific incidents. And, he has received a pardon for those past criminal incidents, largely because he has made an effort to work with aboriginal men to avoid falling into the same problems.

That is largely the narrative the NDP and his staunchest supporters are pushing. Kinew is adamant all of his past legal problems, including those detailed in the anonymous emails, were disclosed to the party prior to last April’s election. The fact he was not deemed to be ineligible as a candidate speaks volumes about the faith the NDP have in Kinew.

Over the weekend, a number of notable supporters came to Kinew’s defence. Justice Murray Sinclair, author of the report of the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the first aboriginal judge in Manitoba, renewed his public support of Kinew’s candidacy. And former NDP cabinet minister Gord Mackintosh released a statement on social media arguing Kinew remains exactly the man to lead the NDP.

"Sometimes a person who triumphs from a difficult journey is the most insightful, empathetic and strongest to then lead," Mackintosh said in his statement.

To Mackintosh’s point, Kinew’s bid to overcome from his checkered past to become the first aboriginal leader of a mainstream political party has created a watershed moment in Manitoba politics.

Kinew was raised by a man who was a residential school survivor. There is simply no way to separate the violence and substance abuse of Kinew’s earlier life from the violence and substance abuse that consumed his father. How will voters react to a man who appears to have escaped the multi-generational dysfunction that is the hallmark of the residential school experience?

It is certainly possible NDP party members, and voters in general, will look at Kinew’s lyrics and run-ins with the law and reject him as a legitimate option to lead a political party and a province. Based on the way other candidates with checkered pasts have been treated, it is likely fair to hold Kinew to the same standard.

It’s also possible Manitobans will see a man who has, against great odds, pulled himself back from the brink of a personal abyss to forge a high-profile public persona and well-rounded personal life.

Only one thing is certain. As is always the case in politics, the voters will get the final say.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Dan Lett.

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