Manitoba has existed as a province for 153 years and, in that time, has had 19 premiers lead it through rewarding and turbulent times, marking milestones and influencing history.
Despite its lengthy resumé, the province comes up short in two significant measures. It has never elected a premier who is female or First Nations.
Depending how Manitobans cast their ballots on Oct. 3, new ground could be broken.
Heather Stefanson is the province’s first female premier, a position she has held since November 2021. But she didn’t lead the Progressive Conservatives to victory in an election. She won a leadership vote after Brian Pallister resigned.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who lived on the Onigaming First Nation in northwestern Ontario, has the edge on Stefanson heading into the election, according to recent poll results.
But he insists he’s not out to make history for his ethnicity.
“I’m going to turn to great role models, leaders past that we’ve had, to try and be the best leader that I can be. But my goal is not to be the First Nations premier of Manitoba. My goal is to be the best premier of Manitoba,” Kinew told CBC News.
Réal Carrière, an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s political studies department, said that’s probably the best approach for Kinew.
Should Kinew win, it doesn’t mean Indigenous people will suddenly have more influence or a stronger voice. Representing all Manitobans is exactly what he will be required to do, Carrière said.
“It’s a very hard job to be Indigenous and be a political representative because you do have to balance the role. It’s very restrictive,” Carrière said.
In her time as premier, it’s not like Stefanson has advanced an agenda around women’s concerns, he said.
“One thing it does signal is … an alternative voice with the potential to understand those issues and that’s an important thing for democracy,” Carrière said. “Western democracy has been dominated by white men and their voices, their perspectives.”
A victory by Kinew wouldn’t even necessarily be celebrated by all Indigenous people.
There are Indigenous people who support different political parties and others who believe running for public office undermines Indigenous sovereignty, said Carrière, who has both First Nations and Métis ancestry.
“There’s still kind of a conception … that there’s a monolithic Indigenous peoples and that we all want the same thing. We don’t,” he said.
“There’s a perspective that running for office, even voting, is a sign that you’re accepting colonialism, you’re accepting the oppression of Indigenous political orders.”
Whether it is supported or not, a Kinew victory would show Indigenous people the possibilities that exist “and that’s very aspirational,” Carrière said.
Manitoba’s 1st Indigenous premier
Since its founding, Manitoba has had one Indigenous premier, despite leading all provinces in terms of the proportion of its population who identify as Indigenous, according to Statistics Canada.
John Norquay, who was Métis, served as premier from 1878 to 1887.
He oversaw the establishment of many of Manitoba’s foundational systems, said Gerald Friesen, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Manitoba from 1970 to 2011 and author of several books.
“He was really supervising a cabinet and a government that put new Manitoba, the Manitoba we know, on the map,” Friesen said.
“The courts and the school districts and the university and the municipal governments and the highways and the branch railways, all of that stuff, even the route of the CPR, he had a hand in.”
Norquay appealed to people because he related to them. He spoke a number of languages, including English, French, Cree and Saulteaux.
He also commanded attention because he was a big man — over six feet and weighing more than 300 pounds. Yet he carried a gentle touch.
“He spoke brilliantly and everybody commented on how eloquent he was and how he spoke with a soft, smooth way about him that they just found very attractive,” said Friesen, whose upcoming book is titled The Honourable John Norquay: Indigenous Premier, Canadian Statesman.
Honorary 1st premier: Louis Riel
In late 2019, Kinew introduced The Louis Riel Act to bestow Riel with the honorary title of “First Premier of Manitoba.” The bill was introduced four times but never passed.
Riel’s provisional government negotiated the terms that led to the province entering Confederation. He never served as a Manitoba MLA but was elected three times as an MP. However, he refused to take his seat as he feared for his life and lived in exile.
One of the side effects of Confederation for Manitoba is that it began the suppression of Indigenous people.
Col. Garnet J. Wolseley led an expeditionary force from Ottawa to Winnipeg to oversee the transition of power from Riel to Canada, but also to confront Riel and the Métis for the Red River Resistance and execution of Ontarian Thomas Scott.
Riel and others from his government fled before the force arrived. But Métis who remained were tyrannized by the troops. Eventually, many moved west into Saskatchewan and Alberta, while others hid their ethnicity.
Even Norquay, in spite of his popularity, faced challenges.
He was elected by acclamation in 1870, representing High Bluff. But by the second election in 1874, High Bluff had become home to many Ontarians, and Norquay moved to the Métis stronghold of St. Andrews for the support he needed.
“Norquay had a substantial following at St. Andrews but for the rest of the province, it had become very quickly European-Canadian,” Friesen said.
Norquay became premier in 1878 but won his seat by just eight votes. He managed to stay in office until a financial scandal in 1887.
“If you look at the very first elections, at that point in the 1870s, a lot of people were Indigenous and a lot of people were Métis in Manitoba. But if you look at the trends, you start to see less … after 1885,” Carrière said.
Part of that was due to Métis leaving the province, while others buried their mixed blood ethnicity, unwilling to identify as Métis.
“There was definitely a real negative time for Indigenous people. You kind of had to go underground,” Carrière said.
As for First Nations people, they were confined to reserves by the federal government, prohibited from participating in the Canadian electoral process unless they surrendered their Indian status and band membership.
It wasn’t until 1960 that Parliament granted First Nations the right to vote and run for office.
Like Norquay, whose term spanned a transition in societal views, Kinew is emerging at another crossroads, Friesen said.
“Canada has undergone a very significant change in the last decade and we are much more conscious of Indigenous people. We are much more aware that their civilizations are just as exciting and just as rich as any European one and that the 100 years when they were downgraded was a mistake and a tragic failure on the part of the rest of us,” he said.
“There is still racism in the province, of course, and Wab faces that, but he also has vast support among many, many whites in this province.”
The magnitude of the situation isn’t lost on Kinew, whose late father was a residential school survivor and was not allowed to vote as a young man.
“And I have a shot at potentially leading the province,” Kinew said in an interview with The Canadian Press last month.