Brian Bowman, JD 1999, on hotly contested elections, building up his hometown, and grabbing life’s opportunities as they come

Brian Bowman '99By Karen Gross / Photography by David Lipnowski

From the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of Nexus.

KG: Tell me about your experience in student politics while you were at U of T.

BB: I was really active in the Students Law Society. I was vice president in my second year. And then I was president of the SLS in my final year.

It was a great experience because it was a contested election and I was running against some really impressive students. In hindsight I guess it was a bit of a trial run for running for public office. University of Toronto is very much embedded in the business community and the larger community. There was a lot of public outreach that the position afforded me. At the time we worked pretty collaboratively with the administration and Dean Daniels, assisting the school to raise money for the back-end debt relief program. Dean Daniels and I would regularly visit the Bay Street law firms to solicit funds to support that program. Representing the law students and all the administration and most importantly the juggling of the calendar as a busy student was a wonderful experience. I definitely learned a lot.

KG: I read that you once said the battle for president of the SLS was tougher that the battle for Winnipeg mayor. Is that true?

BB: I don't know if that would be accurate but it was tough. There were some really good students that were running. It was a hard fought election, much like the election here. On election day I didn't know how things were going to turn out.

KG: Your victory in the mayoral election was unexpected. What do you think clinched it for you?

BB: I think people were really looking for vision and change. We've had a turbulent period at city hall in the last term and there was also a real desire not only for change but a greater vision for Winnipeg. We've had a number of really good things happening here. Manitoba has a low unemployment rate. We have a really diversified and growing economy. We had the Jets return. We had the Canadian Museum for Human Rights open. We have a beautiful, world-class stadium for the Blue Bombers, and a new airport. There's really a lot of investment and economic activity in Winnipeg right now, but people were looking for what's next. How can we continue to elevate our game and compete internationally and compete against other Canadian cities in some cases for headquarters and other jobs?

KG: A lot has been made about the fact that you're the city's first Indigenous mayor. How significant do you think that is?

BB: It really wasn't a huge factor during the campaign. I've always been open and very proud of my peoples' heritage but most people didn't vote for me because of that. They wanted to get somebody in there who can get results. First and foremost I'm a Winnipegger. That said, Winnipeg, not unlike many other Canadian cities, has a growing Indigenous community. If my own personal story can act as a bridge between communities and continue to bring Winnipeggers together so we can build the type of city we're all proud of, then that's a great opportunity, especially as it relates to our young Indigenous and Métis communities.

KG: What are the key challenges there?

BB: They're not unlike the challenges facing all members of our community. All families want what's best for their children. They want to have increased opportunities for them in terms of jobs and employment. There are obviously some historical challenges that members of the Aboriginal community have faced, and Winnipeg, like other cities, is doing really good work to create opportunities for everyone. I chose to appoint myself as secretary of Urban Aboriginal Opportunities. It's a portfolio that will really be focusing on providing those opportunities. Winnipeg has the largest per capita number of Aboriginals—which include Métis, First Nation and Inuit—in Canada. And it's expected to continue to grow.  I see that as a source of strength and opportunity. I think increasingly Winnipeggers are coming to that realization and I hope that members of the national community recognize that Winnipeg is a pretty cool place to visit and invest in because of our Aboriginal community. It's really a source of strength.

KG: How do you see Winnipeg five years from now? What changes do you envision?

BB: One is a city hall that works and is much more open and accessible. And I'd expect that our city hall will be the leader in Canada for openness and transparency. The second lens that I look at is stronger and safer neighborhoods. We have a very vibrant downtown and a lot of suburbs. We've really been focusing on how do we strengthen those communities, and make them safer and healthier. Probably the most important thing for me is a growing, thriving, more modern Winnipeg. My ultimate goal is to reach a million people. We're not going to do that within five years but we're well on our way to reaching that in 20 years and I want to try speeding that up. With a growing population, we need a full rapid transit system, better infrastructure, and an increased focus on jobs and the economy. So I'll be travelling to every major Canadian city in the first year of my mandate to invite Canadians to invest, travel and relocate to Winnipeg.

KG: There's something else that drives you. An experience you had while doing a summer internship in Mexico when you were a law student. What happened?

BB: I worked for the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs doing analysis of the OECD and NAFTA. It was an incredible experience. I also did advising and analysis for the foreign minister on Canada's federal election in 1997. Coming back from a surfing trip, I was on a bus that was attacked. Some guys opened fire on us with machine guns. We had a bullet go between me and the guy who was sitting beside me, and it blew out a woman's kneecap.

KG: How did that change you?

BB: I think it's not unlike traumatic incidents people have when they have a health scare. You reevaluate your own mortality. In the years that followed, I realized that I was more focused. I didn't want to wait for things to happen in my life. And wanting to make a difference in the community where I live is, I'm sure, influenced by that experience.