July 20, 2018

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Time for Judy Klassen to get back to serious business

Editorial

If MLA Judy Klassen gets her way — and let’s hope she doesn’t — it will be forbidden inside the legislature to mention the past misdeeds of Wab Kinew.

Ms. Klassen has asked the Speaker to prevent members of the provincial government from bringing up Mr. Kinew’s history during debates in the chamber. Speaker Myrna Driedger has reserved her decision on the Kewatinook MLA’s request to refer the matter to a legislature committee.

Ms. Klassen’s support for Mr. Kinew is not based on party lines: she’s a Liberal, he’s leader of the New Democratic Party. But both are Indigenous — and race is her stated reason for trying to protect Mr. Kinew from his past.

“I am trying to build my people up... there are many within our communities who do have criminal backgrounds but have worked hard to turn their lives around.”

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If MLA Judy Klassen gets her way — and let’s hope she doesn’t — it will be forbidden inside the legislature to mention the past misdeeds of Wab Kinew.

Ms. Klassen has asked the Speaker to prevent members of the provincial government from bringing up Mr. Kinew’s history during debates in the chamber. Speaker Myrna Driedger has reserved her decision on the Kewatinook MLA’s request to refer the matter to a legislature committee.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Liberal MLA Judy Klassen</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Liberal MLA Judy Klassen

Ms. Klassen’s support for Mr. Kinew is not based on party lines: she’s a Liberal, he’s leader of the New Democratic Party. But both are Indigenous — and race is her stated reason for trying to protect Mr. Kinew from his past.

"I am trying to build my people up... there are many within our communities who do have criminal backgrounds but have worked hard to turn their lives around."

It should be noted that Ms. Klassen’s exasperation with the government is understandable. With frustrating frequency, when NDP members try to debate important issues, the government will sidestep by pointing to the personal past of Mr. Kinew.

Yes, the Pallister government should dwell less on Mr. Kinew’s past and focus more on the issues. But no, Ms. Klassen, they shouldn’t be gagged.

Suggesting Mr. Kinew should be treated differently because of his race has the echo of the 1999 Gladue court decision, which commendably impels Canadian judges to take note of systemic or background factors when determining sentences for Indigenous offenders.

There are two reasons, though, why Mr. Kinew doesn’t fit the cultural-clemency spirit of Gladue.

First, Mr. Kinew chose to enter public life and knew, as leader of the Opposition, he would be the point person in spirited and confrontational debates in the legislative chamber.

Second, Mr. Kinew’s opponents are only repeating information that he himself has discussed openly. His 2015 memoir recounts instances of impaired driving and assaulting a cab driver. He has also addressed his more recent homophobic and misogynistic social media posts and rap lyrics.

Mr. Kinew’s backstory has shaped his public image as a leader who has turned his life around; he can’t be surprised political opponents will question the sincerity of his self-proclaimed redemption.

Ms. Klassen seems to believe enforced erasure of Mr. Kinew’s criminal past during legislative discussions will make him a better role model for Indigenous people. Perhaps the opposite is true. If Mr. Kinew rises above the personal shots, as he seems capable of doing, his determination might be an inspiration to others who are dogged by a criminal past and must persuade a skeptical community that their turnaround is sincere.

Ms. Klassen has previously made valuable contributions in the legislature. Shortly after being elected, she was lauded by all parties for openly discussing tragedies that have afflicted her family because of their Indigenous background. And her work on a municipal anti-harassment bill was applauded by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.

But her attempt this week to protect the NDP leader represents the third time recently she has risen to public attention on disappointingly trivial matters. Last week, she joined NDP members who accused Premier Brian Pallister of glaring at them. And she apologized Friday for saying a highway crash that left Independent MLA Steven Fletcher a quadriplegic was "a gift," explaining later that she doesn’t see disabilities in a negative way, but believes "that person has been gifted in some miraculous way."

What has been missing from Ms. Klassen’s recent forays into the spotlight has been her previous focus on the more substantial issues facing Manitobans.

It’s time to get back to business.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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