Earlier this month, Manitoba’s New Democratic Party (NDP) secured a majority government in their provincial election, ousting Heather Stefanson and the Progressive Conservative party who have been in power since 2016. With the win, the NDP’s leader Wabanakwut “Wab” Kinew becomes the second Indigenous premier in Canadian history.
The path to becoming premier for some may have been a childhood goal or desire to work in the public sector, however, for someone like Wab Kinew, the path was anything but easy.
Kinew was born in Onigaming First Nation, Ontario and lived with his family there until they moved to Winnipeg in his early childhood where he graduated from a private high school. Kinew’s father, a residential school survivor, faced abuse throughout his time at the school. As a result of this abuse, he developed an alcohol addiction and became violent. Growing up with his self-described “distant” and “angry” father, Kinew himself inherited some unhealthy traits.
After high-school, Kinew attended University of Manitoba to study economics. Absorbed in party life, he began to abuse alcohol and drugs. In consequence, Kinew faced several convictions, including drunk driving, refusing a breathalyzer, and assault of a cab driver. Kinew recalls being in a jail cell wondering if he could even make bail. This is when Kinew recognized that he hit rock bottom, saying: “I told myself that because I had been mistreated, I was somehow justified in treating others poorly,” said Kinew in a 2016 interview with CBC.
Kinew began his rap career in the mid 2000s where he won an Indigenous Music Award (formerly known as an Aboriginal Peoples’ Choice Music Award) in 2009, however, the controversy of his lyrics and rap group proved to be a moment of change for Kinew’s life. While he was an advocate for a public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, Kinew’s rap group — called “Dead Indians”— was criticized for being hypocritical to his personal beliefs. Kinew later left the group to begin a different career path.
Throughout the early 2010s he began his journalism career with CBC Winnipeg, later pursuing the role of Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Manitoba. During this time, Kinew rekindled a relationship with his father and broke through the generational trauma while fathering his own children. A story of Kinew’s father’s time at St. Mary’s Residential School can be seen in a CBC short film made by his son called, Surviving the Survivor.
Kinew’s political career began in 2016 when he ran for member of the provincial legislature. Nearing the end of his campaign, past homophobic and sexist tweets surfaced online to which Kinew quickly apologized for and remained on the ballot. Kinew finished victorious with 37% of the vote. Throughout his political life, Kinew was known for introducing Bill 223 to mark Orange Shirt Day in Manitoba, as well as Bill 228 called the Sikh Heritage Month Act. 2017 was his first year as leader of the NDP and after losing the provincial election in 2019, they were finally victorious this October when they formed a majority government.
In his victory speech, Kinew spoke directly to kids, “I was given a second chance at life, and I would like to think that I’ve made good on that opportunity and you can do the same,” says Kinew, “my life became immeasurably better when I stopped making excuses and I started looking for a reason.” He finished with saying if young people want to change their life for the better “it has to be you to decide to move forward.”