By Gordon Sinclair Jr.
Winnipeg Free Press Mar. 12, 2016 – Wab Kinew is intelligent, articulate, multi-talented and ambitious, an assessment the 34-year-old has no trouble agreeing with, I’m sure.
He’s a former hip-hop artist, an actor, author and journalist who grew up in relative privilege as the son of a University of Winnipeg professor and residential school survivor.
Oh, yes, that’s the bonus — Kinew is indigenous. That much anyone could see from his time on CBC television, where he was the host of acclaimed series 8th Fire and came to be a self-styled “ambassador” to the aboriginal community. He is the associate vice-president of indigenous affairs at the University of Winnipeg and, most recently, an NDP candidate for Fort Rouge in the upcoming provincial election.
Yet, despite his impressive resumé — or maybe because of it — it’s hard to know who Kinew really is.
Especially given what happened this week to this attractive face and outspoken champion of Canada’s indigenous community. All his talk has been betrayed by a years-old tweet. More than one, actually. They run the gamut — from misogynistic to homophobic — all of them as juvenile as they are repulsive, much like similarly offensive hip-hop lyrics that hit the headlines earlier this month.
But the tweet that topped them all, especially given the image Kinew has carefully cultivated, was: “Riding in my limo back to my king sized sweet feeling really bad for those kids in Attawapiskat. #haha #terrible #inative.”
Those kids Kinew was “feeling really bad for” were from an isolated and impoverished Attawapiskat First Nation, where a state of emergency had been declared two years earlier because of a housing crisis.
And Kinew hashtagged “haha”?
So it was Friday, when the NDP called a news conference, with Premier Greg Selinger there to stand by his man, I dropped by to ask a few questions.
Pointed ones about that tweet from the limo.
Kinew opened the news conference with a lame joke. It was the last time he, or anyone else in the room, would laugh out loud. I had not met Kinew before; what struck me first was his body language when Selinger was speaking.
Kinew posed casually, with hands tucked in his pants pockets and a look that exuded smugness, but was probably a cover for his anxiety. I asked Kinew what he was thinking when he tweeted laughter from the limo.
“One thing that’s common in the First Nations community is to have a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour,” he said.
“About children who are impoverished?” I asked.
“What I am making fun of there is my own privilege,” Kinew said. And all the opportunity and achievement that resulted from it.
“I am mocking myself for being able to live a very high quality of life at the same time that little brothers and sisters in communities just like the one I started life out in are living in abject poverty. At the same time, I am satirizing everyone else in this country who turns a blind eye to their suffering.”
I asked if he regretted the tweet.
“I regret not putting ‘#satire’ on it,” he said.
I would go on to suggest he might understand why some people might doubt his sincerity. I meant his answer about the tweet and his proclaiming that he had changed over the years. Transformed, as he put it.
“You know me,” he added at one point.
I didn’t, but I was getting to.
Ultimately, I asked if he had thought about apologizing to the people of Attawapiskat.
“Well, I am sorry. To anyone that my words harmed.”
It took more back-and-forth, more pointed questions, before Kinew finally said: “I am sorry to the people of Attawapiskat for having their good name dragged through the mud. And I am sorry for any harm that I caused them.”
I wasn’t expecting him to be contrite — which he wasn’t — but I didn’t expect him to turn combative, either.
Some time after Selinger nudged him and quietly told Kinew to stay cool under my questioning, Kinew glared at me. He tried to stare me down as the premier answered questions. I looked away the first time, but not after the second, even longer, who-will-blink-first contest.
Later, another reporter asked Kinew how the voters in Fort Rouge can be sure he’s sincere, that he had actually changed.
“Well,” Kinew answered, “because, um, they need only look at how I’ve conducted myself in this situation.”
It was after the news conference, angered at the way Kinew had tried the stare-down tactic, that I approached him and introduced myself.
“I know who you are,” he said.
And now I finally know who Wab Kinew is.