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Why Wab Kinew’s victory is a moment of progressive hope

NDP crafted a smart campaign that successfully blocked lines of conservative attack

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

Wab Kinew is officially sworn in as Manitoba’s first First Nations premier on October 18, 2023 at a ceremony at The Leaf in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park. Photo courtesy Wab Kinew/X.

Wab Kinew’s victory over Heather Stefanson in the recent Manitoba provincial election is a moment of progressive hope in what has become a dispiritingly conservative Canadian political landscape. The win was the result of Kinew’s NDP campaign focusing resolutely on Stefanson’s health care record while leaving very limited lines of attack for the governing PCs.

It’s a solid win New Democrats should celebrate. But it is also one that perhaps provides insight on where future conservative campaigns will turn when usual lines of attack are blocked. Certainly, the turn was ugly. It may have been effective.

Polls repeatedly showed health care was the top issue—and by a considerable margin. The PCs had cut health care, cut staffing, shut down emergency rooms and created long ER wait times. From any objective position, Manitoba’s health care system suffered dramatically under the PCs.

Kinew pledged to hire more doctors and nurses. He promised to reopen the closed ERs. He vowed to open five new health care clinics across the province for those without access to a family physician. He did campaign events with supportive doctors, with internationally-trained health professionals. It was rare that Kinew’s campaign talked about anything other than health care—and the PCs’ record on it.

Critically, Kinew’s NDP planned to achieve their health care goals by redirecting to health care the money the Stefenson PCs planned to spend as tax cuts. The NDP had a response to “how will you pay for it,” and it wasn’t to hike taxes. When the PCs campaigned on their boutique tax cuts, as they did for the first half of the campaign, it was a reminder of their abandonment of health care and unpopular priorities. Perhaps the PCs could have won a battle between tax cuts and tax hikes, but in a contest between tax cuts and health care, they lost. The PCs needed to find something else.

It wasn’t going to be crime. Just as they had taken taxes off the table, the NDP also blocked PC lines of attack over crime. Some argued Kinew’s own history made the NDP vulnerable. But Kinew’s life story also provided a narrative about the potential of redemption and rehabilitation that contrasted with the PCs’ sole reliance on enforcement, which had failed. According to Statistics Canada data, Winnipeg has a higher rate of violent crime than Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon or Regina. This rate has risen considerably considerably higher than when the PCs formed government in 2016.

Two weeks prior to the campaign, Kinew gave a speech about his approach to crime and justice. Kinew again admitted to his own serious legal transgressions 20 years before, but also argued that “being held accountable to the justice system” confronted him with the need to change his life. That Kinew did change his life gave his thoughts about crime an endorsement from experience.

Kinew’s platform pledged to hire 100 new mental health workers “to work alongside law enforcement” and to eliminate homelessness by creating supports to link people to housing and mental health supports. Where the PCs had closed a jail in Dauphin—not coincidently, an NDP target seat—the NDP would open a “centre for justice” which would work with surrounding Indigenous communities and educators to deliver programming focused on rehabilitation and recovery from addiction. He promised adequate funds to municipalities to cover the costs of policing.

In short, Kinew pledged to be tough on crime—but in a different way than the PCs, which was clearly not working.

The positioning worked. During the campaign, polling showed voters slightly preferred Kinew’s approach on crime to Stefanson’s. With another line of attack successfully blocked, the NDP’s ability to keep the focus on health care was maintained.

For the first two weeks of the campaign, Stefanson focused on tax cuts. Then—perhaps planned in advance, perhaps in reaction—Stefanson disappeared from public view for over a week while her campaign pursued a strategy of identity and disruption.

The PCs hitched onto a North American wave of anti-trans militancy, which bleeds into an opposition to gender and sexual identity in school curricula. Social media accounts called the SOGI curriculum a plan by teachers and schools to “indoctrinate” and turn kids gay or trans. And in Winnipeg, it seemed the messages were heavily targeting Punjabi speakers in Winnipeg’s North End, where three NDP candidates were of Punjabi heritage.

The school division sent information letters to parents, written in English, Punjabi and Hindi. But the letters may have only served to confirm that sexual orientation and gender expression were to be taught in the classroom.

At first it didn’t feel like an electoral issue; it was a social issue, not connected to the campaigns (though Stefanson, during the September 18 debate, sketched out a position when she promised legislation to boost parents’ rights). When raised on the doorstep, which was rarely, local NDP candidates reminded parents the curriculum was posted on the ministry website and they could choose to take their kids out of school if the curriculum ran against their values. The PCs and third party anti-SOGI groups were saying the same about attendance.

On September 20, “Million March 4 Children” protests across North America, including in Winnipeg, drew media attention and counter-protests. And with those counter-protests, the SOGI curriculum issue fully crossed from being a social issue into an electoral issue, especially among the Punjabi-speaking voters of Winnipeg’s suburbs. As part of the counter-protests, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, himself of Punjabi heritage, led a group in an Ottawa march and pledged his political support to protecting LGBTQ people. The same day, information was spread among Punjabi-language local social media networks that sexually explicit information was going to be shared in school the next day.

As it turned out, parents were being provoked to hold a school strike. The next day, about 1,000 students were away from classes in north Winnipeg schools, with high absences reported among Indo-Canadian students. The NDP’s three Punjabi-speaking candidates had considered the large Punjabi-Canadian community a strong electoral asset. But now that community was divided, with some expressing disappointment with Singh and the local NDP candidates.

On election day all three NDP Punjabi-speaking candidates were elected. How much NDP support among Punjabi-Canadians may have drained away in the last two weeks of the campaign is impossible to determine. Certainly, events distracted from the NDP’s central message about health care.

Similar disruptive power flowed from the PCs’ move to politicize the search for the bodies of two murdered Indigenous women, believed by police investigators to be in a Winnipeg-area landfill.

On September 30—the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, colloquially known as “Orange Shirt Day”—there was a large Winnipeg parade celebrating First Nations culture and calling for reconciliation. But the weekend before, a PC advertisement pledged that the party would “stand firm” against those who wanted the landfill searched. Rather than the day being solely framed by slogans of celebration and reconciliation, a new PC narrative created the juxtaposition of a white premier “standing firm” in opposition to a parade of First Nations people and allies urging her to “search the landfill,” and raising concerns about “stolen sisters” and murdered and missing Indigenous women.

Certainly, the “stand firm” ad was a signal of support to those Manitobans who devalue Indigenous people and deny the legacy of colonialism. It may have also been an intentional echo of biblical refrains to “stand firm” in Christian faith against enemies of God—in this case, progressives, the NDP, Wab Kinew and First Nations people. To those ears, a PC vote was essential to protect a culture and identity, even in loss. Maybe especially in loss.

A very late campaign social media advertisement reprised the motif, calling on PC supporters to “stand firm and vote how you feel, not how others say you should.” Shortly after posting the ad, the PCs quickly removed it. News media characterized the PC campaign as having “pulled” or “yanked” the ad, amplifying feelings of conservative victimization by the imagined outcry of “others.” Curiously, by removing the ad—rather than “standing firm” with it—the PCs foreshadowed their own defeat, which by then seemed inevitable, and signalled an urgency for traditional PC supporters to go vote, if not to protect Stefanson, than to protect the party’s future.

It’s impossible to know the effectiveness of the PCs’ “parental rights” and “hold firm” tactics. Some have argued they were counter-productive, turning away more than they attracted. It’s also possible their content wasn’t helpful to the PCs, but value lay in their ability to disrupt the NDP’s health care message. Without doubt, they injected a white-hot distraction into a campaign that, from the PC perspective, was stubbornly focused on fixing health care.

Public polling suggests the tactics were effective. In August, the PCs and NDP were polling about even. By the last two weeks of the campaign the NDP had created a significant lead as the parties fought their health care versus tax cuts battle. By that time polls from Probe Research, Angus Reid, Research Co., and Mainstreet pegged the NDP in the range of 47-49 percent with the PCs at 38-41 percent.

The final poll released during the campaign, completed by Forum Research on October 2, showed the NDP at 45 percent and the PCs at 41 percent. The final result was 45.5 percent against 42.1 percent. It seems possible in the campaign’s final days the NDP dropped about two points and the PCs gained one or two.

It’s true that people learn more from losses than wins, but not for good reason. Last spring, the Alberta NDP’s platform gave the United Conservative Party (UCP) a clear line of attack on the NDP over taxes. UCP leader Danielle Smith managed to look reasonable for 30 days, talked a lot about the NDP’s tax plan, and created fears among voters considering an NDP vote for the first time. Smith won.

The Manitoba NDP learned and drafted a platform blocking lines of PC attack. The PCs adapted, in the process perhaps learning if they can’t win on traditional PC issues like taxes and crime, identity and disruption might offer an alternate route.

If that’s the lesson conservatives take, New Democrats in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, where elections are scheduled next year, may want to do some learning from an NDP win in Manitoba.

Tom Parkin is a frequent political columnist and commentator with a bluntly social democratic point of view. Follow him on X @TomPark1n.

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