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Opinion

The danger and promise of frank talk in fraught times 

By Susan Riley      

Moral clarity is difficult in an political environment so riddled with ironies. It is unusual that the New Democratic Party, party of progressive policies and United Church values, is wrestling with accusations of racism and sexism.

Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, right, is under fire for his religion in Quebec, while the fact that he is a strong supporter of LBGTQ rights, and a brace of other socially progressive ideas, is hardly mentioned. The Hill Times photograph Andrew Meade
GATINEAU, QUE.—By some accounts, politicians and public figures live in dangerous times—only one glib remark, or one youthful mistake, away from pubic disgrace, even career suicide. But it isn’t that simple.
Consider the troubling story of Wab Kinew, former broadcaster, author and now the leader of the New Democratic Party of Manitoba. Kinew’s victory two weeks ago should have been a triumph, not only for him, but for Canada’s Indigenous people. Articulate, handsome, and engaging, he looks like the kind of leader a new generation of Indigenous youth needs—someone who played by the rules of white Canada’s system and won. He also espouses a brace of socially progressive, pro-feminist policies that have made him a darling of the non-Indigenous left.
But within 30 minutes of his victory, the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives launched a website, reprising homophobic and misogynist rap lyrics and tweets from Kinew’s past—attitudes he has long since repudiated. Worse, an Indigenous woman who lived with Kinew, when he was in his early 20s, opened up about physical abuse she had suffered at his hands.
Tara Hart, questioned by reporters, recounted a 2003 incident in which Kinew grabbed her and pushed, or dragged, her across a rug; she was also reportedly pulled into an apartment corridor by her hair, in an alcohol-fuelled fight. She went to the police and charges were eventually stayed, which means nothing could be proven or disproven. Her mother and sister have verified Hart’s story, but there is no reason to doubt it: why would she emerge from obscurity and expose herself to the inevitable backlash? Female victims of violence, perhaps especially Indigenous women, are used to being disbelieved. Criticizing an Indigenous hero is even more risky; it is certainly no ticket to serenity. (Hart has been in hiding since her comments became public.)
While she was right, and brave, to speak her truth, Kinew’s response has been incomplete, to say the least. He acknowledges causing “emotional pain” to Hart and her family, and admits that he was a different man in his early twenties, before he straightened out his life. But he denies the particulars of Hart’s account. In his words: “I must have hurt the family at an emotional level. I probably scared them. I was not in the best place in my life.”
This has been enough to draw rebukes from prominent feminists—including Niki Ashton, who is running to lead the federal NDP—and to raise doubts about Kinew’s advertised respect for women and for gender equality. For others inclined to believe Hart, it raises troubling questions about his character. Why not give a full account of what happened? Why so coy?
Kinew, 35, is, by all appearances, healthy and happily married to a First Nations doctor, having embraced native spirituality and wrestled with his youthful anger. Should he be punished now for his behaviour as a young man, however threatening and violent? Is his apology, curtailed though it is, enough? Should we, as he asks, judge him on present and future actions as he tries to make private amends to the wounded family? Or, is letting him off with a warning good enough?
Apart from the shame, and a spoiled career launch, Kinew will likely survive. He will continue to earn a good salary, do meaningful work, and may, in time, even defeat Brian Pallister, the part-time Tory premier who enjoys long sojourns in Costa Rica. Kinew is not the victim in this scenario—except, perhaps, of his own unwillingness to be completely frank.
Meanwhile, the debate has spilled over into the federal NDP leadership race, with candidate Jagmeet Singh standing by Kinew, who, in turn, recently endorsed the Toronto MLA’s leadership bid. That was too much bro’ solidarity for some New Democrats. Challenged by Ashton, Singh declared that “I have no difficulty saying with great conviction that I believe survivors.” But he continues to support Kinew, which puts him in a potentially contradictory position.
To underline the complexity of this present moment, Singh’s turban has become a lightening-rod in the federal race, and his well-publicized confrontation with a hate-spewing racist—whom he tried to deflect with calls for love and courage—earned him wide-spread praise. Wide-spread, but not universal. In a passionate rebuttal, three young activists—Bailey Reid, Erin Gee and Erica Ifill—called out the mostly white media for its uncritical applause for Singh in an article in Policy Options. The implication, they argue, is that “people of colour are responsible for insuring that white people are not made uncomfortable by discussions of race.”
In fact, there is mounting discomfort, thanks to impassioned interventions of writers from marginalized groups. The challenge, for everyone, is distinguishing the offensive (Senator Lynn Beyak’s ill-informed advice to First Nations people to hand in their status cards in return for citizenship, which they already have) from the truly sinister.
For example, a handful of nationalist Quebecers, including some New Democrats, object to Singh for wearing a turban. This, they say, is an affront to Quebec’s secular society and to a bill making its way through the National Assembly that would restrict religious garb in some instances.
The bill’s intent is clearly discriminatory—just as the infamous, and more far-reaching, Charter of Values was. The nervousness in the NDP on this topic does them no credit. If a policy is inherently discriminatory, you don’t defer to those who wrote it out of crass political calculation. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer may be wrong not to turf Beyak from the Tory caucus for her assimilationist views, but the NDP can hardly claim the moral high ground on issues of race unless it firmly repudiates Quebec’s xenophobic gestures.
Moral clarity is difficult in an political environment so riddled with ironies. It is unusual that the New Democratic Party—party of progressive policies and United Church values—is wrestling with accusations of racism and sexism. And, if you pull back the lens on the Kinew controversy, you find a larger tragedy—the legacy of racist, colonial attitudes towards First Nations that nearly destroyed a culture and many individuals lives. Including his.

Meanwhile, it is interesting that Jagmeet Singh is under fire for his religion in Quebec, while the fact that he is a strong supporter of LBGTQ rights, and a brace of other socially progressive ideas, is hardly mentioned. And, in this charged environment, Conservative MP Gerry Ritz calling uber-capable environment minister Catherine McKenna “Climate Barbie” seems like a quaint vestige of a pre-feminist era.

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