A big week in Canadian politics: Important new roles for Greg Fergus and Wab Kinew
Top: Greg Fergus is escorted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre (Parliamentary photo). Bottom: Wab Kinew at a campaign rally (Manitoba NDP).

As U.S. House Speak­er Kevin McCarthy was being deposed in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., amidst the ugly dys­func­tion of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, pro­gres­sives were scor­ing a pair of real and sym­bol­ic vic­to­ries north of the bor­der in Win­nipeg and Ottawa… achieve­ments in which all Cana­di­ans can take pride.

The left-lean­ing New Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty swept to vic­to­ry in Manitoba’s provin­cial elec­tion, oust­ing a two-term Con­ser­v­a­tive government.

The win means NDP leader Wab Kinew will take office as Canada’s first Abo­rig­i­nal First Nations pre­mier. The only pre­vi­ous Indige­nous pre­mier, a Metis named John Norquay, served between 1878 and 1887.

Wab Kinew speaks at a press conference
Man­i­to­ba Pre­mier-des­ig­nate Wab Kinew speaks at a press con­fer­ence in August of 2023 (Man­i­to­ba NDP)

The MPs of Canada’s fed­er­al House of Com­mons, mean­while, made his­to­ry by elect­ing parliament’s first House Speak­er who is Black, Greg Fer­gus, a mem­ber of the gov­ern­ing Lib­er­al Par­ty who rep­re­sents an Ottawa-area rid­ing (dis­trict).

The Speak­er is elect­ed in an all-par­ty vote.

In a par­lia­men­tary tra­di­tion, Fer­gus feigned reluc­tance and was “dragged” to the Speaker’s chair by Lib­er­al Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau and oppo­si­tion Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty leader Pierre Poilieve. Fer­gus said he will work for “respect and deco­rum” in a body known for its rau­cous debate. He comes armed with wit, and expe­ri­ence dat­ing to 1988 when he served as a page deliv­er­ing papers and cups of water to MPs on the floor of the House of Commons.

New House Speaker Greg Fergus at an event in 2020
Greg Fer­gus speaks at an event at HXOUSE in Toron­to on Sep­tem­ber 9th, 2020 (Pho­to: Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s office)

Manitoba’s Wab Kinew has been a rap musi­cian, a uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­ter and a broad­cast­er before tak­ing over as leader of the New Democrats.

He also has a crim­i­nal record as a youth, for which he was par­doned in 2016.

The rul­ing Con­ser­v­a­tives veered right dur­ing the cam­paign, rais­ing his past record and promis­ing a “par­ents’ bill of rights.”

They took a drub­bing. The New Democ­rats took thir­ty-four seats in the provin­cial leg­is­la­ture, up from a pre­vi­ous eighteen.

The Con­ser­v­a­tives fell from thir­ty-six seats to twen­ty-two, with a lone Lib­er­al Par­ty law­mak­er sur­viv­ing the NDP sweep. The Con­ser­v­a­tives were reduced to just three of thir­ty-two seats in met­ro­pol­i­tan Winnipeg.

Why should we care about far-away Manitoba?

Kinew is an exam­ple of hope to Indige­nous peo­ples, par­tic­u­lar­ly con­flict­ed young peo­ple. He rose above usu­al vic­to­ry dec­la­ra­tions on elec­tion night, talk­ing to his back­ground: “I was giv­en a sec­ond chance in life, and I would like to think that I’ve made good on that opportunity.

“And you can do the same – here’s how. My life became immea­sur­ably bet­ter when I stopped mak­ing excus­es and I start­ed look­ing for a rea­son and I found that rea­son in our fam­i­ly, I found that rea­son in our com­mu­ni­ty, and I found that rea­son in our province of Man­i­to­ba and in our country.”

The los­ing Con­ser­v­a­tives ran a dirty cam­paign, but out­go­ing Pre­mier Heather Ste­fan­son was gra­cious in defeat. She spoke in words rem­i­nis­cent of John McCain on the night of Barack Obama’s vic­to­ry in 2008. The bit­ter­ness of the right, on elec­tion night, has late­ly been the rule in both the Unit­ed States and Canada.

“Mr. Kinew and I don’t always agree on every­thing but like, I know that he loves this province, and he loves the peo­ple of Man­i­to­ba,” said Stefanson.

“Wab, I hope that your win tonight inspires a future gen­er­a­tion of Indige­nous youth to get involved in pol­i­tics – right across the country.”

Inter­est­ing­ly, as a win­ning strat­e­gy in Canada’s heart­land, the New Democ­rats bor­rowed pages from the play­book that has worked for Democ­rats in “the states.” They took advan­tage of advance vot­ing: The num­bers in Man­i­to­ba soared from 116,000 in 2019 to more than 200,000 in this election.

They ham­mered at a core issue – health care – even as the Tories tried a scat­ter­shot of neg­a­tive attack strategies.

Wab Kinew speaking
Wab Kinew speak­ing at a Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion of Cana­da event in 2014 (Pho­to: Unit­ed Church)

And, like Oba­ma with his Philadel­phia address on race in 2008, they had Kinew deliv­er a high­ly per­son­al speech, ear­ly in the cam­paign, talk­ing about who he was, what he rep­re­sent­ed, and the type of gov­ern­ment he would offer the province.

On elec­tion night, he under­scored that theme: “A lot of peo­ple in the big cities, they look down on us here in Man­i­to­ba,” he said. “’Fly over coun­try’, they said. ‘Win­nipeg, man, it’s cold out… but look at what lit­tle old Man­i­to­ba did tonight. Man­i­to­ba did some­thing more than any of those big cities ever did. We elect­ed a strong team of New Democ­rats to fix health care and make your life more affordable.”

Nation­al­ly, the New Democ­rats usu­al­ly elect only 25–35 mem­bers of Canada’s House of Com­mons. They are, how­ev­er, strong in the provinces and par­tic­u­lar­ly the West. The NDP gov­erns British Colum­bia, just won in Man­i­to­ba, and had a stint gov­ern­ing Alber­ta where it is now a strong oppo­si­tion. It los­es rur­al rid­ings but wins in cities across the prairies and in B.C.

Greg Fergus campaigning
Greg Fer­gus cam­paign­ing in 2009 (Cam­paign pub­lic­i­ty photo)

Back in Ottawa, Fer­gus has a job much big­ger than con­trol­ling debate. He has work to do in restor­ing the image of Canada’s parliament.

Ukraine’s Pres­i­dent Zelen­skyy came north last month after speak­ing to the Unit­ed Nations Gen­er­al Assem­bly and meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Biden in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He embraced Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau at meet­ings in Ottawa and Toron­to and was greet­ed with an all-par­ty stand­ing ova­tion at the House of Commons.

As part of the warm recep­tion, how­ev­er, House Speak­er Antho­ny Rota asked a 98-year-old Ukrain­ian in the gal­leries, one Yaroslav Hun­ka, to stand and be rec­og­nized. Law­mak­ers stood to greet him. It was lat­er revealed, how­ev­er, that Hun­ka fought with Germany’s Wehrma­cht on the Russ­ian front in World War II.

Vladimir Putin was hand­ed a pro­pa­gan­da vic­to­ry, big­ger than any gift he has received from Tuck­er Carl­son, Bob­by Kennedy Jr., Matt Gaetz or Mar­jorie Tay­lor Greene south of the bor­der. Putin has jus­ti­fied the Ukraine inva­sion on grounds of root­ing out “Nazis” in its government.

The job of Com­mons Speak­er comes with a love­ly retreat in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa. I’ve been there. It’s ide­al place to relax, walk and think.

These days, oppo­si­tion Con­ser­v­a­tives are hard on the heels of Trudeau’s gov­ern­ing Lib­er­als. Per­haps, with help from a new Speak­er, the Great White North can show its south­ern neigh­bor that a fierce polit­i­cal rival­ry can be con­duct­ed with ratio­nal­i­ty and civil­i­ty. Fer­gus must also arrange for bet­ter back­ground checks on any­body who get intro­duced from the galleries.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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