With Indigenous population growth outpacing the rest of the province, there may come a year where the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples will be front and centre in a Manitoba election campaign.
This was not that year.
One of the two leading parties in this province spent the last 12 days of the formal election period campaigning for votes based of its opposition to searching the Prairie Green Landfill, north of Winnipeg, for the remains of two First Nations women police believe are the victims of a serial killer.
The other leading party, led by a man poised to potentially become the only First Nations premier in Manitoba history as of tomorrow, has chosen to tiptoe to some extent around Indigenous concerns, lest its leader and his party be deemed too invested in First Nations voters’ needs in the minds of the rest of the electorate.
The decision by Manitoba Progressive Conservatives to lean hard into its landfill search opposition in the latter days of this campaign may go down in provincial political history as one of the riskiest campaign moves ever made by this party.
There are several forms of risk at play, the first being obvious: turning off socially progressive conservatives — in a province where red Tories remain a significant portion of the electorate — as part of an effort to fire up the most conservative members of their base.
“They’re trying to defend their strongholds across the province, particularly what will be left of those strongholds in Winnipeg,” said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
“Some campaign managers just know that they have to get nasty with their messaging. It has to be hard-hitting at this late stage to grab voters’ attention.”
The PCs will learn tomorrow whether this gambit alienated those in the progressive wing of the party — leading those voters to stay home on election day or change their vote — more than it fired up other conservatives.
“I think a lot of people are saying ‘this isn’t the party that it used to be, that I used to support’,” said University of Brandon political scientist Kelly Saunders.
“People that feel that this party is veering too much to the right and going into those dog-whistle areas, like parental rights, and the landfill are associating Wab Kinew with crime.”
Reputation at risk
The other form of risk is not so immediate. Party leader Heather Stefanson spent more than two decades in the Manitoba Legislature developing a reputation as a moderate consensus builder, but she could see her political legacy tarnished by the PC gambit.
There are parallels between Stefanson and former St. Vital councillor Gord Steeves, who spent 11 years at Winnipeg’s city hall, and was known as an affable, moderate politician who was more of a blue Liberal than a red Tory. After Steeves’ run for mayor in 2014 initially faltered, he took his campaign hard to the right — raising questions about who he really was as a politician.
Saunders said voters may be asking similar questions about Stefanson.
“She doesn’t seem like the same kind of person that she was before. Certainly when she first became premier, she spoke specifically about wanting to be more open, more inclusive, more conciliatory and more consensus-oriented as well, specifically on reconciliation issues. So this really flies in the face of that,” Saunders said.
“It’s a little bit disjointed and I think confusing for voters to try to figure out exactly where she stands on these issues.”
There may be some confusion, albeit to a far less dramatic extent, about Kinew during this campaign.
For months, the NDP leader appears to have been walking a rhetorical tightrope that involves neither playing up his party’s commitments to Indigenous peoples nor downplaying them.
While Kinew promised early on to engage in some form of good-faith landfill effort, the NDP largely avoided raising the Prairie Green search until Stefanson and the PCs decided to campaign on their stance.
Even more significant was the moment during the televised leaders’ debate when Kinew was asked about violent crime in Manitoba. The NDP leader, who is clearly well aware of the relationship between poverty and crime, somehow managed not to mention any aspect of the social determinants of crime.
“When we talk about the causes of crime, I think we all know that it’s drugs. For so many of the issues that we’re seeing each and every day, it’s drugs, it’s addictions,” Kinew said.
This reductionist message, intended for a broad audience tuning into the only consensually experienced hour of the 28-day-long campaign, was very different from Kinew’s subtle and tactical speech before party supporters at Canadian Mennonite University in August.
During that speech, Kinew didn’t shy away from complexities.
“Race is part of the landscape when it comes to safety in Manitoba. Indigenous people come up in our conversations about crime in this province,” Kinew said at the time.
“We all know the stats about the overrepresentation in jails, and in the courts, but there is something that is lost in the conversation my opponents want to have about public safety in Manitoba and it’s a simple truth: Far too often in our province, Indigenous people are the victims of crime. And so do you want to know who wants real action and not rhetoric when it comes to public safety in Manitoba? Indigenous people.”
Thomas described Kinew’s August speech as pre-emptive move against the PC attack ads that arrived in volume later in the campaign.
“It was meant to inoculate him against his past as what the PCs portray as an angry Indigenous man. It was a speech he had to get … out of the way and move on to talk about issues,” Thomas said.
“He’s still not coming out full force and saying ‘I’ll be a premier who will be so responsive to Indigenous concerns, Indigenous people.’ That is the reputation of the NDP. But he’s been making a strong point over and over again: ‘I’ll govern on behalf of all Manitobans.’ “
Lightning rod issues
Saunders said she understands why Kinew did not place more of a spotlight on Indigenous concerns during this campaign.
“Indigenous issues are a lightning rod and certainly you see the conservatives trying to make it even more of a lightning rod. So I think there’s a sensitivity around that, whether you want to call it reconciliation fatigue, whether you want to call it our ability to not fully confront our colonialist past and the genocide that has impacted Indigenous peoples and continues to impact in this country,” she said.
“It just shows the underlying racism,” she continued, “that unfortunately exists in a lot of pockets in our society.”
Saunders said she understands why Kinew “would want to walk delicately” around Indigenous concerns.
“It’s not like he would be denying his Indigeneity. Obviously that’s an important part of who he is and his lived experience and how he looks at the world and issues, but it would be a challenging thing because you want to downplay it and I think you see that in some of his messaging, right?” she said.
“You don’t want to put that out front and centre because of the ways in which Indigeneity, Indigenous issues, and reconciliation have really been weaponized in a a lot of quarters.”
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation provided Kinew with more of an opportunity be his authentic self and still speak to the broader community.
“I want to say to Indigenous people, every time you dance at a powwow, every time you sing, every time you speak your language, you prove that the architects of the residential school era failed in their quest to destroy our cultures,” Kinew told an audience Saturday at Canada Life Centre.
“And I want to say to non-Indigenous people, thank you so much for coming out today and wearing orange, because when you stand together with the community, you prove that the architects of the residential school era were mistaken when they thought that Canadians and human beings from different walks of life could be divided.”
If the NDP becomes the next government on Tuesday, the election of a First Nations premier will be a historic moment for Manitoba. But the pressure on Kinew to engage in a balancing act will continue, to the potential chagrin of Indigenous voters hoping for immediate change.
A PC victory, meanwhile, would offer Stefanson the opportunity to reconsider a more conciliatory approach with First Nations leaders in particular. At this point, that may be as steep a mountain for her to climb than winning her party another term.