“Little old Manitoba,” where it’s usually the Jets, the Bombers or the cold at Portage and Main getting most of the attention, had an election of national significance last week. The Keystone Province not only elected, in Wab Kinew, the first First Nations provincial premier in Canada’s history, a majority of voters resisted the plague of divisive right-wing politics that’s been gaining strength in this country.

The Premier-elect led his New Democratic Party to a solid victory with a message of unity in response to one of the nastiest campaigns ever mounted by an incumbent government. And he did it with grace and folksy humour, exemplified by his election night invitation to “look at what little old Manitoba did tonight…something more progressive than any of those other big cities ever did.” 

The fact that the NDP turfed out a tired seven-year-old Progressive Conservative government seeking a third term is not in itself surprising. Since 1969 the politically moderate New Democrats have been in power in Manitoba 60 per cent of the time, occupying  a revolving door with the erstwhile politically moderate PCs. 

And while significant, it is not altogether surprising that Manitobans who thought it was time for a change would turn to the familiar NDP, albeit with a First Nations leader. What is a surprise – an unpleasant one –  is that in an effort to stay in power, the PCs would jettison the “P” from their acronym and mount an overtly  racist campaign against the NDP leader.

Kinew, an Anishinaabe with a resume that included broadcasting,  punk rock, and university administrator, was elected to lead the NDP in 2017. As such he became leader of the official opposition, and given the revolving door of Manitoba politics, the premier in waiting. As has been widely reported, the NDP leader brought to the job a fair bit of personal baggage from his youth – including addiction, convictions for assault and refusing a breathalyzer. Those transgressions received a full airing before and during the 2019 election campaign. Nevertheless, the NDP emerged from that campaign re-invigorated, with four additional seats. 

That outcome should have been enough to convince the Conservative  back room that attacking Kinew’s chequered past wasn’t a winning strategy in 2023. But instead, the party doubled down on that tactic and added a few other items, part of a media campaign, the egregiousness of which has been widely denounced by, among others, defeated cabinet minister Rochelle Squires who described it as “misguided at best, atrocious at worst.”

Standing Firm

In their ads the Conservatives went tough on crime, implying that Kinew would go easy on criminals, given his past run-ins with the law. They also grasped at some other straws, with overtures to the “parental rights” movement. But their worst move was to turn the tragedy of the  Prairie Green landfill into an election issue.

To summarize, a serial killer murdered at least four Indigenous women on the streets of Winnipeg. The remains of two of those victims are believed to be buried in the landfill. Indigenous people and their supporters want government to recover the bodies, but it’s an operation that has been deemed to be expensive, potentially dangerous to searchers, and possibly fruitless. The federal government nevertheless agreed to share the cost of a dig, but Heather Stefanson’s government  demurred, citing concerns about the safety of searchers. 

When I read about that decision a few months ago I thought that from the perspective of reconciliation it was wrong. But politically it could have appealed to some “common sense” voters who thought the money could be better spent elsewhere. Or more ominously, the decision could have been one of those “dog whistles” that send a message about resisting the demands of First Nations Manitobans.  But in the midst of the election campaign the Conservatives dispensed with the whistles and went loud, putting up billboards actually bragging about the decision to “Stand Firm” against a landfill dig. 

As Manitoba commentator Charles Adler, anything but a progressive, aptly puts it: “Standing Firm on the remains of murdered Indigenous women is a confession of moral weakness. It illustrates the total collapse of values in today’s Manitoba Progressive Conservatives.” 

I cite Charles Adler, and the defeated cabinet minister, to show that criticism of the Conservative ad campaign covers the spectrum. Plenty of centrists and leftish commentators also weighed in with negative comments. And inadvertently, a devastating critique came from the Conservative campaign itself.

In the final days, the party briefly posted an online ad saying voters should “vote how you feel, not how others say you should…vote like no one is watching because no one is.” There are many example around the world of parties telling their supporters not to be afraid to vote for them. Telling potential supporters not to be ashamed to vote for them may be a first.

Surprise Ending

In the wake of the election there has emerged some optimism that the Manitoba example may deter other politicians bent on dividing, such as Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, who is preparing to use the notwithstanding clause to override the human rights of trans students. The assumption seems to be that divisive tactics backfired on the Manitoba Conservatives and may therefore prove an object lesson to other parties. It would be great if that were true,  but such optimism is not borne out by the numbers. 

Without going into a lot of detail, the reality is that the NDP moved well ahead in the polls in early 2021 and remained comfortably in that position even after the Conservatives replaced Brian Pallister with Heather Stefanson. Conservative polling numbers were at just 35 per cent at the beginning of 2023, about ten points behind the NDP. In the two weeks before election day one poll had the New Democrats up by six points, another had them ahead by 11. 

But in the final vote tally, the spread was only 3.5 per cent, with the NDP at 45.5 and the Conservatives at 42. Either the polls had been wrong  or the barrage of attack ads on the NDP had the desired effect, saving the Conservatives from a complete rout. 

Support for the latter interpretation came from the PC campaign director, Marni Larkin, a veteran party organizer, appointed to the board of the CBC  by the Stephen Harper government in 2012. In a post-election interview with the Winnipeg Free Press she was unapologetic, describing the Conservative project as “the campaign we needed to run” in order to save as many seats as possible.

“A year ago, it looked like we were only going to win 12 seats. We had to build a campaign to avoid that kind of result,” she said. “With over 20 seats now, we will be able to raise money. If we have a chance in four years, I think history will treat this campaign fairly.” 

Treat fairly? That will depend on who is writing that history. Marni Larkin and the Manitoba Conservatives, with their racist win at all costs campaign, are clearly on the wrong side of the history that Wab Kinew is trying to write. But the success of Kinew and the NDP in completing that task cannot be taken for granted.

It’s on a different scale, but many of the positive responses to the Manitoba election outcome are reminiscent of the election of Barack Obama in 2008. His ascension to the U.S. presidency was seen not only as a repudiation of that country’s racist past but as a world-changing event, worthy of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. But within two years the bloom was off that rose, with the emergence of the radical right Tea Party and racist “birther” movements,  precursors to the election of Donald Trump.

The Manitoba election shows that those same currents exist in “little old Manitoba” and, according to the Conservative campaign director, can be stirred up and marshalled for electoral gain. The election of Wab Kinew should be celebrated, but Manitobans and all Canadians should not readily forget or forgive the depths to which the Conservatives were prepared to sink, just to win enough seats “to raise money” for future campaigns.