Friday, November 28, 2014
New Winnipeg mayor and alumnus Brian Bowman and his spouse on election night

Alumnus Brian Bowman scored a landslide--and surprising victory--in Winnipeg's 2014 mayoralty race.

 

By Karen Gross / Photos by Ian McCausland

Believe it or not, in his law school days, Brian Bowman, JD 1999, was commonly known to his classmates as Mr. Winnipeg. An unabashed booster of his beloved hometown, Bowman would preach the city's virtues to his Toronto-centric circle incessantly. "I wouldn't shut up about Winnipeg when I was in Toronto," Bowman remembers. "There were some people who would kind of look down on Winnipeg. Quite often, these were people who'd never been there. They didn't realize how great a city it is."

That was back in the late 1990's. No one could predict that in 2014, Bowman would literally become Mr. Winnipeg, after winning a surprise landslide victory in October's mayoral election. Not only did he stun the pundits with a long-shot candidacy that had him trailing just weeks before the vote, Bowman, a Métis, is also Winnipeg's first Indigenous mayor. "It really wasn't a huge factor during the campaign," he says. "But Winnipeg has a growing Indigenous community, and if my own personal story can act as a bridge between communities, then it's a great opportunity."

Bowman has been seeing opportunities—and grabbing them—for most of his life. After obtaining a BA from the University of Manitoba, he chose to attend University of Toronto for law school because he saw something there that he didn't see at other schools.  "I'd heard so many good things about not only the academic experience, but also the engagement the U of T had with the community," he says. "For someone who was interested in public service and politics, that was really attractive." He quickly got involved in student government, becoming vice president, and then president of the Students' Law Society after a competitive campaign that he says laid the groundwork for the recent mayor's race.

"It was a hard-fought election," Bowman says of the law school battle. But he learned some very important and enduring lessons. "In law school, everybody knows everybody and you can't campaign pretending you're something that you're not. Winnipeg is like that too. During both those campaigns, I just tried to be myself, to be authentic."

So who is the authentic Brian Bowman, aside from being Winnipeg's biggest fan? During the past decade, the 42-year-old husband and father of two young sons was a partner at the business law firm Pitblado, specializing in privacy law, access to information and social media. He was chair of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, president of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and president and CEO of the University of Manitoba's Alumni Association. Bowman also served on the boards of several local non-profits, including Ka Ni Kanichihk, an Aboriginal community services organization. While some wondered during the mayoral campaign how anyone could be so authentically decent, it seems no one could say a bad word about him. Just the opposite. "Winnipeg is so lucky," says his former law school classmate, Kate Hilton. "He genuinely adores that city. He's such a decent, capable, energetic person."

 

Brian Bowman in a group shot with his campaign team

Winning campaign team for Brian Bowman

 

For the moment, Bowman is training his energy on improving access to city hall, cleaning house, and bringing what he calls a new generation of leadership to town. He likens his own election outcome to those of other western cities, including Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. "Municipal leaders that are a lot more tech-savvy, more open and accessible," he says, "a little bit more authentic and less partisan. I really believe Canadians are increasingly looking for people who offer those attributes."

With infectious enthusiasm, Bowman describes a city that, rather than being isolated, flat and cold, is populated by warm people and sits at the heart of the country--a  growing city that's brought its beloved hockey team home, boasts the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and a world-class football stadium. But that's just the foundation. Bowman wants everyone to know that Winnipeg is open for business, and he plans to travel the country to publicize that. He foresees the city's population swelling to one million over the next two decades. And he is committed to modernizing its infrastructure and building out its rapid transit system. Bowman has big plans for the future.

Still, he wants to add something about the past. "Had I not gone to U of T law school, I wouldn't be sitting in this office right now," he says. "I have no doubt that had I not learned the skills there—in the classroom and student government—and the work ethic, there's no way I would have been equipped to take on this role. And I really mean that."