November 24, 2017

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Indigenous MLA's attempt at damage control too little, too late

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files</p><p>NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine was at Wab Kinew’s side when he announced his candidacy for leadership of the Manitoba NDP in April. </p>

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine was at Wab Kinew’s side when he announced his candidacy for leadership of the Manitoba NDP in April.

I hadn’t expected the message Tara Hart’s older sister and mother had waiting for me when I called Sunday afternoon to see how they were doing after they had finally shared their feelings about Wab Kinew in that morning’s Free Press.

But then neither Melanie Hart, nor her mother, Wendy Bird, had expected to get the message they got earlier in the day, either.

Nahanni Fontaine, the New Democratic Party MLA and self-styled champion of all Indigenous women’s issues, had sent a Facebook message that morning asking if she could drop by for a visit that afternoon with the two of them.

And Tara, too.

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I hadn’t expected the message Tara Hart’s older sister and mother had waiting for me when I called Sunday afternoon to see how they were doing after they had finally shared their feelings about Wab Kinew in that morning’s Free Press.

But then neither Melanie Hart, nor her mother, Wendy Bird, had expected to get the message they got earlier in the day, either.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Above: Wendy Bird (left) and Melanie Hart, Tara Hart’s mother and sister, allege Wab Kinew continues to lie about assaults on Tara 14 years ago.</p></p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Above: Wendy Bird (left) and Melanie Hart, Tara Hart’s mother and sister, allege Wab Kinew continues to lie about assaults on Tara 14 years ago.

Nahanni Fontaine, the New Democratic Party MLA and self-styled champion of all Indigenous women’s issues, had sent a Facebook message that morning asking if she could drop by for a visit that afternoon with the two of them.

And Tara, too.

One Indigenous woman to another, I’m thinking.

Fontaine reached out to the family after she had read that morning’s Free Press, which happened to be the day after Wab Kinew won the NDP leadership in a landslide. What Fontaine had read would cast a shadow over Kinew’s victory and threaten to throw an even longer one over the party’s hopes for victory in the next provincial election.

Given those circumstances, it makes Fontaine’s messaging appear more calculated than comforting.

The Free Press column contained new and disturbing details from an interview with Tara’s mother and sister, in which they expressed their lingering anger at Kinew for continuing to "lie" and "deny" two charges of domestic assault dating back 14 years, when Tara was his common-law partner and they both drank heavily.

The charges were subsequently stayed but the hurt remains for Tara and her family, along with disturbing memories of what Tara told her mother about what led to the charges.

In a story by The Canadian Press last week, Tara described publicly for the first time how she suffered severe rug burns after she said Kinew threw her across a room.

Tara’s mom had more information that suggests where the second assault charge may have come from.

Her mother said Tara alleged Kinew opened the door of the high-rise apartment they shared, grabbed her by the hair and pulled her into the hallway.

"And my girl was crying," Wendy told me.

There was more.

Wendy said her daughter told her Kinew also threatened to throw her off the balcony.

Soon after Fontaine read that, she would be reaching out to the family.

To simply "listen," as Fontaine emphasized, "and offer support and see if there’s any role I can play in navigating through this hurtful situation."

Fontaine added this in the message sent to Melanie: "And if your family doesn’t feel it’s good or necessary to have me visit, I... completely understand."

Of course, Fontaine understands why the family might not want to visit with her.

But just in case she doesn’t, I’ll let Melanie put it in her own words.

"I don’t trust her."

Where was Fontaine when the family needed her support?

Fontaine was standing up beside Kinew, proudly and loudly saying she supported a changed man "100 per cent."

Fontaine even said that after Tara — responding to reporters requests over Facebook — broke her silence after years of trying to put it behind her and, in the process, exposed herself to hurtful online abuse.

And now, suddenly, when the one allegation from Kinew’s acknowledged violent criminal past threatens to haunt him, Fontaine reaches out.

Melanie said  it wasn’t the first time they had communicated. She claimed she contacted Fontaine when she pressed a domestic assault charge of her own against another powerful Indigenous leader, the man she was living with then, Chief Wallace Fox of the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

."I reached out to Nahanni for support at the time," Melanie recalled when we spoke again Sunday. "She had nothing to say. Why now?"

Melanie believes she knows the answer.

Under the circumstances, Melanie and her family have a right to be skeptical about the timing of Fontaine’s contacting them.

They have a right to interpret her reaching out as a desperate attempt at damage control for the NDP’s new leader — and the party’s future. And a cynical attempt by Fontaine to use her status as an Indigenous woman with a reputation for standing up for Indigenous women to manipulate three others into forgiving a man who hasn’t asked to be forgiven.

Kinew’s calculated and carefully crafted answers about apologizing to the family for causing them hurt because he ran for office is almost as insulting as the idea of sending Fontaine, of all people, as his peacemaking emissary.

Kinew needs to stand up and tell Tara Hart — and her mother and sister — that he’s sorry for all damage he’s done.

And mean it.

That’s his only chance for damage control.

Instead, he stands back and let’s Fontaine attempt to do the "navigating" for him by acting comforting when the family feels she is simply calculating.

Shame upon shame upon shame.

The shame of it for all of us — for the people of Manitoba in desperate need of bright, compelling and compassionate leadership they can trust and believe in — is that Kinew may never get the chance to really prove he’s a changed man.

And, ironically, this may be the new party leader’s best and last opportunity.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Gordon Sinclair Jr..

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