Manitoba has existed as a province for 153 years, and in that time, 19 premiers have guided it through rewarding and turbulent times, setting milestones and influencing history.
Despite its extensive resume, the province falls short on two important measures. He has never elected a prime minister who is a woman or First Nations.
Depending on how Manitobans cast their votes on October 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 did not lead the Progressive Conservatives to victory in an election. She won a leadership vote after Brian Pallister’s resignation.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who lived in the Onigaming First Nation in northwestern Ontario, has a lead over Stefanson heading into the election, according to recent poll results.
But he insists that he does not intend to make history because of his ethnic origin.
“I’m going to look to great role models, past leaders that we’ve had, to try to be the best leader I can be. But my goal is not to be the premier of Manitoba First Nations. My goal is to be the best premier of Manitoba,” Kinew told Breaking:.
Réal Carrière, an assistant professor in the political studies department at the University of Manitoba, said that’s probably the best approach for Kinew.
If Kinew wins, it does not mean that indigenous people will suddenly have more influence or a stronger voice. Representing all Manitobans is exactly what he will be asked to do, Carrière said.
“It is a very difficult job to be indigenous and to be a political representative because you have to balance the role. It is very restrictive,” Carrière said.
In her time as prime minister, it’s not like Stefanson pushed an agenda around women’s concerns, she said.
“One thing it does indicate is… an alternative voice with the potential to understand those issues and that is something important for democracy,” Carrière said. “Western democracy has been dominated by white men and their voices, their perspectives.”
A Kinew victory would not even necessarily be celebrated by all indigenous peoples.
There are Indigenous peoples who support different political parties and others who believe that running for public office undermines Indigenous sovereignty, said Carrière, who is of both First Nations and Métis ancestry.
“There is still a kind of conception… that there are monolithic indigenous peoples and that we all want the same thing. That’s not the case,” he said.
“There is a view that running for office, even voting, is a sign that you are accepting colonialism, you are accepting oppression by indigenous political orders.”
Regardless of whether he receives support or not, a Kinew victory would show indigenous people the possibilities that exist “and that is a great aspiration,” Carrière said.
Manitoba’s first indigenous premier
Since its founding, Manitoba has had an Indigenous prime minister, despite leading all provinces in terms of the proportion of its population identifying as Indigenous, according to Statistics Canada.
John Norquay, who was Métis, was Prime Minister from 1878 to 1887.
He oversaw the establishment of many of Manitoba’s founding 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 overseeing a cabinet and a government that put the new Manitoba, the Manitoba we know, on the map,” Friesen said.
“He had to do with the courts, the school districts, the university, the municipal governments, the highways and the railroad lines, all those things, even the CPR route.”
Norquay attracted people because it identified with them. He spoke several languages, including English, French, Cree and Saulteaux.
He also attracted attention because he was a big man: over six feet and weighing over 300 pounds. However, he had a gentle touch.
“He spoke brilliantly and everyone commented on how eloquent he was and how he spoke in a soft, collected way that they found very attractive,” said Friesen, whose upcoming book is titled The Honorable John Norquay: First indigenous minister, Canadian statesman.
First honorary prime minister: Louis Riel
At the end of 2019, Kinew presented The Luis Riel Law granting Riel the honorary title of “Manitoba’s First Premier”. The bill was introduced four times but never passed.
Riel’s provisional government negotiated the terms that led to the province entering the Confederation. He never served as a Manitoba MLA, but was elected MP three times. However, he refused to take his seat because he feared for his life and lived in exile.
One of the side effects of the Confederation of Manitoba is that it began the repression of indigenous peoples.
Colonel 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 over the Red River Resistance and the execution of Ontarian Thomas Scott.
Riel and other members of his government fled before the force arrived. But the Métis who remained were tyrannized by the troops. Over time, many moved west to Saskatchewan and Alberta, while others hid their ethnicity.
Even Norquay, despite its popularity, faced challenges.
He was elected by acclamation in 1870, representing High Bluff. But by the second election of 1874, High Bluff had become home to many Ontarians, and Norquay moved to the Métis stronghold of St. Andrews in search of the support he needed.
“Norquay had a big following in St. Andrews, but for the rest of the province, it had very quickly become European-Canadian,” Friesen said.
Norquay became prime minister in 1878, but won his seat by just eight votes. He managed to remain in office until a financial scandal in 1887.
“If you look at the first election, at that time 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, we started to see less…after 1885,” Carrière said.
Part of that was because Métis people left the province, while others buried their mixed-blood ethnicity, not wanting to identify as Métis.
“There was definitely a really negative time for indigenous people. They had to go underground,” Carrière said.
As for First Nations people, the federal government confined them to reserves and prohibited them from participating in the Canadian electoral process unless they renounced their Indian status and their band membership.
It was not until 1960 that Parliament granted First Nations the right to vote and run for public office.
Like Norquay, whose tenure encompassed a transition in social 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 aware of indigenous peoples. We are much more aware that their civilizations are as interesting and as rich as any European and that the 100 years they were was a mistake and a tragic failure on the part of the rest of us,” he said.
“Of course, there is still racism in the province, and Wab faces that, but he also has great support among many, many white people in this province.”
The magnitude of the situation is not lost on Kinew, whose late father survived residential school and was not allowed to vote when he was young.
“And I have an opportunity to potentially lead the province,” Kinew said in an interview with The Canadian Press last month.