With Indigenous population growth outpacing the rest of the province, there may be a year when the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit take center stage in Manitoba’s election campaign.
This wasn’t that year.
One of this province’s two main parties spent the last 12 days of the formal election period campaigning for votes based on its opposition to searching the Prairie Green landfill, north of Winnipeg, for the remains of two First Nations policewomen. who believes they are the victims. of a serial killer.
The other leading party, led by a man who will potentially become the only First Nations premier in Manitoba history starting tomorrow, has chosen to tiptoe to some extent around Indigenous concerns, so that its leader and his party are not considered too interested in First Nations voters. ‘ needs in the minds of the rest of the electorate.
The decision by the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives to lean heavily on their opposition to landfill searching in the final days of this campaign may go down in provincial political history as one of the riskiest campaign moves ever taken by this party.
There are several forms of risk at play, the first being obvious: discouraging socially progressive conservatives (in a province where red conservatives remain a significant part of the electorate) as part of an effort to energize the more conservative members of their base .
“They are 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 they have to be nasty with their messages. You have to be forceful at this late stage to get voters’ attention.”
PCs will know tomorrow whether this tactic alienated those in the party’s progressive wing (leading those voters to stay home on Election Day or change their vote) more than it inflamed other conservatives.
“I think a lot of people are saying ‘this is not the party it used to be, that I used to support,'” said Kelly Saunders, a political scientist at Brandon University.
“People who feel this party is veering too far to the right and getting into such trivial areas, like parental rights and 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 consensus-building moderator, but she could see her political legacy tarnished by the PC’s tactics.
There are parallels between Stefanson and former St. Vital councilor Gord Steeves, who spent 11 years on Winnipeg city council and was known as an affable, moderate politician who was more of a Blue Liberal than a Red Conservative. After Steeves’ 2014 mayoral bid initially failed, he steered his campaign 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 she was before. Certainly, when she became prime minister, she specifically talked about wanting to be more open, more inclusive, more conciliatory and also more consensus-oriented, specifically on reconciliation. So this it really goes against that,” Saunders said.
“It’s a little disjointed and I think it’s confusing for voters to try to determine exactly where they stand on these issues.”
There may be some confusion, although to a much less dramatic degree, about Kinew during this campaign.
For months, the NDP leader appears to have been walking a rhetorical tightrope that involves neither highlighting his party’s commitments to Indigenous peoples nor downplaying them.
While Kinew promised early on to engage in some form of good faith effort on landfills, the NDP largely avoided raising the pursuit of Prairie Green 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 it’s drugs. A lot of the problems we see every day are drugs, addictions,” Kinew said.
This reductionist message, intended for a broad audience tuning into the single consensus hour of the 28-day campaign, was very different from Kinew’s subtle, tactical speech to party supporters at Mennonite University in Canada in August.
During that speech, Kinew did not shy away from complexities.
“Race is part of the picture 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 statistics about over-representation in prisons and in the courts, but there is something that gets lost in the conversation my opponents want to have about public safety in Manitoba and it is a simple truth: too often in our province, Los “Indigenous people are victims of crime. And so 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 speech in August as a preemptive measure against the PC-bashing ads that came 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 that he had to put… aside and move on to talking about the issues,” Thomas said.
“He’s still not coming out in full force and saying, ‘I’m going to be a prime minister who is very responsive to Indigenous concerns, to Indigenous people.’ That’s the reputation of the NDP, but they’ve been insisting over and over again: ” “I will govern on behalf of all Manitobans.”
Problems with lightning rods
Saunders said he understands why Kinew didn’t pay more attention to Indigenous concerns during this campaign.
“Indigenous issues are a lightning rod and you certainly see conservatives trying to make them 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”. “Failing to fully confront our colonialist past and the genocide that has impacted indigenous peoples and continues to impact this country,” he said.
“It just shows the underlying racism,” he continued, “that unfortunately exists in many sectors of our society.”
Saunders said he understands why Kinew “would want to tread lightly” around Indigenous concerns.
“It’s not like he’s denying his indigeneity. Obviously, that’s an important part of who he is and his lived experience and how he sees the world and problems, but it would be a challenge because you want to downplay it and I think you see that in some of your messages, right?” she said.
“You don’t want to put that at the forefront because of the ways in which indigeneity, indigenous issues and reconciliation have really been weaponized in many quarters.”
National Day of Truth and Reconciliation gave Kinew a greater opportunity to be authentic and still speak to the community at large.
“I want to tell indigenous people that every time you dance at a conference, every time you sing, every time you speak your language, you demonstrate that the architects of the residential school era failed in their attempt to destroy our cultures,” Kinew he told an audience Saturday at Canada Life Centre.
“And I want to say to non-Indigenous people, thank you very much for coming today and wearing orange, because when you join the community, you show that the architects of the residential school era were wrong when they thought that Canadians and human beings of 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 perform a balancing act will continue, to the potential chagrin of Indigenous voters hoping for immediate change.
Meanwhile, a PC victory would offer Stefanson the opportunity to reconsider a more conciliatory approach to First Nations leaders in particular. At this point, it may be as steep a mountain for her to climb as winning another term for her party.