Wabanakwut Kinew, hip hop artist, broadcaster, university administrator, author, politician (born 31 December 1981 in Kenora, ON). An Ojibwa activist and public intellectual, Wab Kinew began his career as a musician and rapper with the hip hop group Dead Indians. He gained national attention through his radio and television journalism for the CBC, including 8th Fire, a television series on Indigenous issues. Kinew’s 2015 memoir, The Reason You Walk, was a national bestseller and finalist for the RBC Taylor Prize. Kinew was elected to the Manitoba legislature in 2016, despite controversial tweets and rap lyrics that dogged his campaign. Similarly, revelations of stayed domestic assault charges from 2003 threatened to derail his bid to become leader of the Manitoba New Democratic Party, though he was named leader in September 2017.
Early Years and Education
Kinew was born in 1981 to Kathi Avery Kinew, a policy analyst, and Tobasonakwut Kinew, a former Northern Ontario regional chief, residential school survivor and educator. Kinew spent his early years on the Onigaming First Nation in Northern Ontario and attended an Anishinaabe immersion preschool before moving with his family to Winnipeg, where he went to elementary school. Kinew grew up largely in a south Winnipeg suburb and attended Collège Béliveau, a French immersion high school. His father encouraged him to pursue public speaking opportunities, and as a child, he testified before the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples about his Anishinaabe school experience.
Kinew declined an academic scholarship from an American university in order to stay close to his family and their Anishinaabe roots, and completed an economics degree at the University of Manitoba in 2003. It was at university that Kinew, by his own admission, got “caught up in the party lifestyle.” He experimented with drugs, got into fist fights and was convicted of drunk driving in 2003. The following year, Kinew pleaded guilty to assaulting a cab driver after trying to evade a fare. Kinew entered Alcoholics Anonymous and turned to his Anishinaabe traditions. However, he continued to drift for several years, taking temporary jobs in warehouses, on construction sites or doing contract research for First Nations organizations.
In the late-1990s, Kinew and several friends formed the rap group Dead Indians. Though they never released a full-length album, the group toured North America and became well-known among Indigenous youth via social media. The Dead Indians largely stopped performing together in 2008.
In 2009, Kinew released the solo hip hop album Live by the Drum, named after a successful CBC Radio show that he hosted. The album won the award for best rap/hip hop album at the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards (now the Indigenous Music Awards). The following year, he released Mide-Sun (2010), his second solo hip hop album. Lyrics from these two albums would resurface and cause controversy several years later when Kinew entered politics.
Journalism and Activism
After Kinew wrote a letter to the editor about Canada’s Olympic hockey team that was published in the Winnipeg Free Press in late 2005, Kinew caught the attention of a CBC Radio producer and began working for CBC Manitoba as an associate producer. He later moved into television reporting and also hosted the weekly radio arts program called The 204.
In 2012, Kinew emerged on the national stage as the host of the CBC TV series 8th Fire, which explored the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. Also that year, Kinew left the CBC to join the University of Winnipeg as the school’s first director of Indigenous inclusion. Later, he became the university’s associate vice-president for Indigenous relations, but his role at the university did not hinder his growing national profile, or his broadcast career. While still at the university, Kinew also worked as a correspondent with Al Jazeera America for the documentary series Fault Lines.
In 2014, Kinew championed the winning entry in CBC's Canada Reads competition, Joseph Boyden's The Orenda. During the debate, Kinew sparred with such rivals as Stephen Lewis, with whom Kinew had a spirited debate about the graphic depiction of the Anishinaabe tradition of the sundance in Boyden’s novel. The following year, the CBC chose Kinew to host the 2015 edition of Canada Reads. He was also among the contenders to host CBC Radio’s Q following the departure of Jian Ghomeshi, and he memorably hijacked the George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight show with an impromptu round dance flash mob during the wave of Idle No More protests across Canada.
In 2015, Kinew authored a memoir largely about his often-fraught relationship with his father, who was dying of cancer, and his exploration of his Anishinaabe culture. Following the book’s publication, Kinew became an even more frequent lecturer and media commentator. He also served as the first chairman of Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman’s Indigenous advisory circle, created in the aftermath of a Maclean’s magazine article naming Winnipeg as Canada’s most racist city (see also Prejudice and Discrimination in Canada).
Career in Politics
In 2015, it was rumored that Kinew, who had long been open about his political ambitions, was interested in running for the Liberal Party in the riding of Winnipeg Centre in the federal election. However, Kinew chose provincial politics to make his debut. In February 2016, he announced he would seek the NDP nomination in the urban Winnipeg riding of Fort Rouge, a safe NDP seat. The race was widely watched, in part because Kinew’s main rival was provincial Liberal leader Rana Bokhari. In the general election on 19 April, Kinew won easily with 37 per cent of the vote. Bokhari placed third behind the Progressive Conservative candidate with 20 per cent of the vote.
Though Kinew won his seat, the NDP lost the provincial election, and leader Greg Selinger resigned on election night. With the party in disarray, Kinew emerged through 2016 as one of the opposition party’s most effective members. In April 2017, Kinew announced his intention to seek the leadership of the provincial NDP. His past came to haunt him once again during the campaign. A month before the final vote, an email was leaked to media claiming that Kinew was hiding details of his criminal background, including two charges of domestic assault in 2003. Kinew countered that the charges in question were investigated but eventually dropped. A second email claimed that Kinew had been convicted of seven crimes, including theft under $5,000 for cashing a cheque that wasn’t his. However, these were also charges, not convictions, all of which were dropped. Kinew reiterated that he had received pardons for his past criminal convictions in 2015.
Eventually, and despite much controversy, Kinew was elected leader of the Manitoba NDP on 16 September 2017, defeating rival Steve Ashton by nearly a 3–1 margin. Following the victory, Kinew told the media, “One of the things that I’ve begun to understand over the past few days is, it’s not going to be up to me as to when people are done having those questions answered, so I’ll continue to show up and continue to speak about it.”
In addition to criminal convictions for impaired driving and assault, Kinew’s rap songs and Twitter account also became the focus of controversy. Though he was viewed as a star candidate for the NDP in the 2016 election, his campaign was jolted when his earlier lyrics and tweets resurfaced. Among them were tweets referring to “fat chicks” and suggesting jiu-jitsu is “gay.” He also tweeted “Riding in my limo back to my king sized sweet [sic] feeling really bad for those kids in Attawapiskat. #haha #terrible #inative”
Kinew first apologized for the misogynistic and homophobic rap lyrics in his memoir and at the Indigenous Music Awards in 2014. Later, at a press conference during his first campaign, flanked by Selinger and several NDP MLAs, Kinew apologized again for the comments. He noted in particular the tweet related to Attawapiskat was meant as satire to highlight his own privilege. However, the controversy consumed much of his campaign. Kinew was also drawn into the Joseph Boyden affair, offering a careful defence of his friend following accusations that Boyden overstated and possibly falsified his Indigenous heritage.
Kinew married physician Lisa Monkman in 2014, and has two sons from a previous relationship. He is a member of the Midewiwin, the Anishinaabe society of healers and spiritual leaders.
Best Rap or Hip Hop Album (Live by the Drum), Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards (now the Indigenous Music Awards) (2009).
Honorary Degree, DLitt, Cape Breton University (2014)