Q&A with Wab Kinew, best-selling author, musician and now political candidate

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
Canada Politics

[PHOTO COURTESY: CBC News]

He is a best-selling author, a well-known broadcaster and an advocate for indigenous rights. Now Wab Kinew wants to add politician to his resume.

Kinew, 34, announced this week he wants to run for a seat in the Manitoba legislature, seeking the NDP nomination in the Winnipeg riding of Fort Rouge for the spring provincial election.

His memoir, “The Reason You Walk,” about the year he spent with his dying father and his childhood in Winnipeg and the Onigaming First Nation in northern Ontario, is No. 4 on the Globe and Mail’s Canadian non-fiction bestseller list this week.

The associate vice-president for indigenous relations at the University of Winnipeg, Kinew also holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and is an award-winning musician and hip-hop artist. He was named by Postmedia in 2012 one of “Nine Aboriginal movers and shakers you should know.”

Manitoba voters go to the polls April 19. The provincial Conservatives are leading in the polls, while the incumbent NDP trail both their rivals.

In Fort Rouge, Kinew is pitting himself directly against the leader of the Manitoba Liberals, Rana Bokhari, whose party is surging in the polls.

Yahoo Canada News spoke to Kinew about his decision to step into the political fray. 

Q: How have the first couple days of your campaign been?

It’s been pretty busy because in addition to launching the campaign to seek the nomination, I’m also winding down my duties at the University of Winnipeg, where I’ve been working for the past few years. It’s been pretty intense.

Q: What prompted you to make this move?

I’ve been thinking about the direction that Manitoba might head after this election and I don’t think it would be good if we got rid of a regressive federal government and then just implemented a regressive provincial government in Manitoba. So I decided that I should try and do what I can to make sure that Manitoba stays on a more progressive course, continues to pursue policy and spending that creates a more socially just province.

Q: What are your priorities if you are elected?

I think there are the pieces that affect all Manitobans that I’m pretty passionate about, like making sure that the economy continues to weather the recessionary pressures that are building in this country. Manitoba’s actually been doing all right, relative to the rest of the country, so I’d like to make sure that we can continue doing that and continue building the economy by creating jobs and maintaining good wages.

And I think health care is huge. We have a good health care system but there are a lot of ways that it’s under pressure and, I think, particularly for people who don’t have somebody to advocate for them. It’s not always a fair experience.

And I’m very passionate about issues that affect the indigenous community, particularly the inequities in the health-care system and the education system, which are provincial areas. So, if I’m lucky enough to represent the people of Fort Rouge I’d like to play a role in trying to level the playing field for First Nations kids and First Nations people and Inuit people in Manitoba, as well as advocate for equal opportunities for  Métis.

Q: There is a lot of discussion across the country about the disparities and inequalities for indigenous people. How does that play into your decision and the things you want to accomplish?

It definitely plays a significant part of it. I am genuinely motivated by a desire to keep the economy on the current track because the Conservative Party of Manitoba wants to cut jobs and I think that will actually push Manitoba into recession if you do that right now.

But in terms of the indigenous equality piece, and specifically First Nations people in Manitoba, it hits very close to home.

One of the really good things that the NDP has done in government is they implemented a cancer drug program where all Manitobans are eligible for cancer drug coverage but when my father was dying in 2012, he was ineligible for that program, even though he lived in Winnipeg, because he was a First Nations man. And that is the ugly face of the systemic inequity, is that there are two sets of rules: ones that First Nations people have to play by and the ones that everybody else has to play by. The cancer drug program is a great initiative but part of that work is unfinished and that is to make sure that it benefits all Manitobans, including First Nations people.

[But] first and foremost I’d like to represent the people of Fort Rouge and what I’m hearing from them is that health care is really important, mental health [care] is important, the economy is important. I want to advocate on those things but I also want to play a part, perhaps, in bringing indigenous and government voices to the table so we can do something on health care, so we can do something on education for First Nations.

Q: There have always been indigenous pioneers in politics but in the past couple of years there have been some very high-profile victories. There is Jody Wilson-Raybould [federally] and Amanda Lathlin [first indigenous woman elected in Manitoba]. Do you have the sense of a new era?

We can’t ignore the people who came before, like Willie Littlechild, who was an MP in the 80s. Romeo Saganash has been there a number of years in Parliament. But it is true that there’s a new level of influence. Jody’s probably the most influential First Nations politician since Confederation, which is remarkable.

While there is a long history of indigenous participation in mainstream politics, particularly in Manitoba… but it is entering a new level and I think part of that is because indigenous people are recognizing that in order to exert the kind of influence we want to make things better for our communities, you have to sit at the big table.

Our communities are strong enough now that we can do that without having to sacrifice who we are.

The interview has been edited and condensed from its original version.