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From rapper to reporter to politician: A profile of Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew

WINNIPEG — Rap artist. Journalist. Economics student.

Wab Kinew’s path as a young man, including several brushes with the law and some convictions, did not appear a likely path to politics.

But as he entered his 30s, he decided political office might be where he could make a difference. 

One of the reasons he cites is what happened to the family of his wife, Lisa Monkman, whose mother was on social assistance in the 1980s and was given an opportunity for education and a career. A government program helped the family out of poverty. Monkman would follow up with her own education, go to medical school and become a physician.

“The trajectory of their lives was changed for the better — through their own hard work, first and foremost, but they also had a few public policy interventions that were made at that time and helped,” Kinew recalled in an interview.

“That’s something that speaks to me — education, economic improvement, people doing it themselves, but maybe a little bit of a nudge on the public policy side.”

Kinew was born in Ontario and lived on the Onigaming First Nation as a young boy. His late father was a residential school survivor who endured horrific abuse and passed on to Kinew the importance of Anishinaabe culture and language.

Both Kinew’s parents were well educated and wanted the same for him. He spent some of his formative years in a suburban neighbourhood in southern Winnipeg and graduated from a private high school.

Kinew studied economics in university and became a rising star at CBC, where he hosted shows including the national documentary series “8th Fire.” He was later hired by the University of Winnipeg as its first director of Indigenous inclusion.

Courted by a few political parties at the provincial and federal level, Kinew opted to run for the Manitoba New Democrats in 2016. The party’s then-leader, Greg Selinger, had been one of the teachers in the education program that Monkman’s mother had taken, Kinew said in a 2016 social media post.

Kinew was touted as a star candidate and was elected in the NDP stronghold of Fort Rouge in Winnipeg. But evidence of his past wrongdoings had begun to surface.

Lyrics from one of his songs in the early 2000s had him bragging about slapping women’s genitalia. A Twitter post from 2009 surfaced in which he mused about whether it was possible to get avian flu from “kissing fat chicks.”

There were also criminal charges, and questions about how honest he had been about them.

In his 2015 memoir, “The Reason You Walk,” Kinew admitted to some of his legal troubles from 2003 and 2004 — convictions related to impaired driving and an assault on a taxi driver — and apologized for his past behaviour. Kinew later received a record suspension, commonly called a pardon, for all his convictions.

But the book painted a tamer picture of the taxi assault than the facts read into the court record, which said Kinew had used racial slurs and had punched the driver in the face.

The book also did not mention two domestic assault charges Kinew had faced in 2003 involving his girlfriend at the time. Those charges were stayed several months later and Kinew has consistently denied that he ever assaulted his former girlfriend.

When he launched his successful bid for NDP leader in 2017, Kinew said he had no more skeletons in his closet. That was four months before the domestic assault charges came to light.

Now in his early 40s, Kinew says he turned his life around years ago and his troubled past is one reason he’s running for the premier’s office.

“I believe that because I’ve been able to make good on a second chance at life … that I have something to contribute in how we can improve things.”

As for that economics degree, Kinew says his university days helped shape his political views.

“One of my fundamental political beliefs is that the economic horse pulls the social cart, meaning yep, we’ve got great ideas on health care and education and community initiatives. But in order for any of those things to happen, the economy has to be strong,” he said.

“That’s why a balanced-budget approach (and) costing out the commitments that we make, I think are a foundational piece.”

That deficit-fighting intent, along with recent campaign promises including a vow to not defund police agencies, may rub some of the more left-leaning NDP activists the wrong way, said Royce Koop, who teaches political studies at the University of Manitoba. 

“He’s definitely showing a pragmatic streak,” Koop said.

“He’s going to take positions that he needs to, and he’s not going to kind of stick to a certain ideological line.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2023.

Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press