The Progressive Conservatives have made Wab Kinew’s history a primary focus in their campaign for next month’s provincial election.
In several ads targeting the Manitoba NDP leader, Kinew’s history of domestic abuse allegations, assaulting a taxi driver and misogynist rap lyrics are proof he is "a risk we can’t afford."
For the record, Kinew denies the allegations (two assault charges were stayed in 2004), pleaded guilty to assaulting the driver in 2003, and has apologized for lyrics he wrote more than 15 years ago.
His choices were made between the ages of 22 and 25, much of it when he was drinking and abusing drugs and "hit rock bottom on a personal level," as he told The Canadian Press in 2016, at the start of his political career.
Kinew is now 37. He’s spent the past decade becoming a broadcaster and author. He is happily married. He abstains from alcohol and last released an album in 2010, featuring songs about ceremonies, Indigenous heroes and fatherhood. He has spoken on how his parenting and alcohol abuse related to legacies from his father’s residential school experience.
(Full disclosure: Kinew’s family and mine are close. My sister attended Ojibwe language school with him. I knew his father, supervised his mother at the University of Manitoba and taught his sister when I worked at Kelvin High School. I’ve spoken to Kinew over the years, although not much since he entered politics. For the record: I never once have seen the Wab Kinew of these attack ads.)
I understand why the PCs are using the ads: politics is a dirty game and people can’t escape their past. But in all these discussions about a person’s history, I can’t seem to shake the past of Tory Leader Brian Pallister... because he keeps bringing it up.
Last Friday, Pallister — who is seeking a second term as premier — said his government is engaged in more meaningful reconciliation than any Manitoba government in history, especially those led by the NDP.
"Unlike most of the premiers in the last 60 years," Pallister said, "I actually grew up next to a reserve, and I have full understanding of life on reserve because I’ve spent my life touring and visiting reserves."
This is true. Pallister grew up on a farm near Edwin, adjacent to Long Plain First Nation. He also spent three years as a federal opposition critic on Indian affairs.
However, growing up next to a reserve — never mind "visiting" them — doesn’t mean you "know" reserve life. This is like saying: "I have an (insert minority) friend." It’s patronizing and an excuse, not a reason.
The time in which Pallister, 65, was growing up (the late 1950s to early 1960s) were years of dire poverty and political and economic control under the Indian Act. Virtually, every Indigenous child, for example, would be in a residential school for most of the year.
While these were the initial years when Indigenous Peoples were allowed to travel off-reserve for the first time, few could afford it unless they were working off-reserve.
So, if Pallister "knew" reserve life growing up, it was a life dominated and controlled by the federal government.
Knowing this, the way he talks about Indigenous communities makes sense.
"I visited over 150 First Nations communities," Pallister said last Friday, "and I can tell you that what we’ve been doing is genuine reconciliation. Building ‘Freedom Road’ (to Shoal Lake 40) when the NDP couldn’t get it done. Getting people back home to the Interlake communities that they were evacuated from because of flooding, when the NDP couldn’t get it done… Building partnerships on resource development, which the NDP could not get done."
Building a much-needed road to a First Nation is not reconciliation. Returning people to their homes after a flood is not reconciliation. Treating Indigenous Peoples like human beings is not reconciliation.
As for "building partnerships on resource development," it may be true several land and resource projects exist in the province, but First Nations and the Manitoba Metis Federation don’t agree this is reconciliation either.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask Dennis Meeches, chief of Long Plain First Nation — the reserve Pallister grew up near.
"Pallister has been a difficult premier to work with," Meeches told the Free Press in June, "He has been working against a lot of Indigenous files. It is probably because of his autocratic style of leadership."
Pallister laid it bare last week: his series of demeaning actions and comments surrounding Indigenous Peoples comes from his history. Growing up, he witnessed some of the worst treatment of Indigenous Peoples in history, and he was shaped by it.
He thinks reconciliation is treating Indigenous Peoples like human beings.
It’s not. Reconciliation is building relationships. Sharing. Listening. Growing. Together.
He’s spending too much time pointing at the problematic history of others, when he should be looking at the three fingers pointed back.
One leader’s mistakes were 15 years ago; the other’s was last Friday.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.