10/04/2011 10:09 EDT | Updated 12/04/2011 05:12 EST

Battles with poverty, family separation helped shape Greg Selinger

WINNIPEG - The Manitoba election marked the transformation of Greg Selinger from book-smart numbers man to front-line politician.

It was his first campaign as NDP leader after being chosen by fellow New Democrats to succeed Gary Doer as premier in 2009. He was no stranger to the spotlight having served as finance minister for a decade. But having the party's top job meant the glare was much more intense.

"The media exposure has been higher (than it was as finance minister) and I think you grow into any job," Selinger said in an interview before the campaign began. "But the demand to be in the public eye — and the challenge that gives and the learning that comes with that — quite frankly, I've enjoyed it."

Selinger, 60, has an academic speaking style that can come off as dry and flat. He is "a little bit inward and wonkish," said Jared Wesley, a political science professor at the universities of Manitoba and Alberta.

"He comes off as pensive and ... he does take measured approaches to big policy issues."

Selinger did not immediately connect with voters. NDP support dipped in opinion polls after he became premier and the party trailed the Progressive Conservatives in polls as recently as seven months ago.

But Selinger changed. He was coached on how to present himself on camera. He smiles more now and appears more relaxed when he speaks. His lengthy responses to questions have been replaced with shorter, sharper quips.

"Greg's always been a good communicator in terms of one-on-one or with groups of people ... and I think the work that he did was getting more comfortable in front of a bank of cameras, a row of microphones," said Michael Balagus, NDP campaign director.

To help the transformation, Selinger jumped at the chance to debate his opponents. In radio studios, conference centres and community halls, Selinger participated in more debates in this campaign than previous premiers.

"I think he's had a lot of chances to fine-tune his speaking skills," said Christopher Adams, who teaches political science at the University of Winnipeg.

Most Manitobans know Selinger as a policy wonk. He has three university degrees, taught social work at university and can talk at length — sometimes tremendous length — about macroeconomic theory.

What most do not know is that Selinger has another side — one of left-leaning social activism shaped by a childhood in which his family battled poverty, separation and mental illness.

Selinger has been reluctant to talk in detail about his upbringing. But he recently agreed to discuss how his family's struggles, guided by a resilient mother who paved her own way in the male-dominated 1950s, led him to where he is today.

"When you come out of a family background where there is a lone parent, you see issues of how you look after children, right? Or if you see issues where relatives are struggling with mental-health issues, ... that develops a certain sensitivity to those issues," he said.

"And then when you're working in ... inner-city neighbourhoods and dealing with issues of poverty and all the struggles people have, it was pretty hard not to be interested in social justice."

Selinger was born in 1951 in a rough part of what is now north-central Regina. When he was a preschooler, the family moved to Vancouver, where his parents' marriage fell apart.

His mother moved back to Regina and tried to find a way to take care of her children. Selinger was sent to live with his grandparents in rural Saskatchewan.

"It was a way to stabilize the family again."

Selinger lived apart from his mother for a year, although they saw each other frequently.

Eventually, she decided to move the family to Winnipeg. She opened a small clothing store in the St. James area. Becoming a business owner was a bold move for a woman in that era, but she was determined to make it work.

The family was thrown another curve ball. A relative — Selinger would not say who — was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"When you see a close relative (suffer) from that ... you struggle to understand what's going on and what could be done about it.

"You just have to understand why and what's causing it, or try to get a sense of that, and then how do you support somebody, right? The family members (have) to bring that back under some sort of reasonable level of control and stability for everybody."

His mother handled it all. She ran the clothing store for a decade, raised her kids into teenagers and brought in enough money for a comfortable middle-class lifestyle before closing up shop as bigger department stores moved in.

"The strongest thing I drew from my mother was resiliency, the bounce, the ability to keep finding better ways to make a living."

Selinger's mother found other jobs in office administration and real estate, and ensured there was enough money for him to attend the University of Manitoba. There, prompted by his upbringing, he decided to study social work.

But Selinger was also developing an interest in finances. He had helped his mother run the store and wanted to learn more about the business world. It was an unusual bent for a teenager during the hippie era.

"I don't want to sound like a geek, but I read the (Winnipeg) Free Press but I also read things like the Financial Post and stuff as a teenager.

"I was just interested in how things work and how government and the economy work together."

After getting a bachelor's degree in social work, Selinger worked in the inner city. He saw people get involved with loan sharks, something that would prompt him decades later, as finance minister, to crack down on interest rates and enforcement used by payday loan companies and other short-term lenders.

In his 20s, he helped establish an economic development agency for low-income earners that exists to this day. He taught social work at the University of Manitoba and went on to graduate studies — a master's degree in public administration from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and a PhD in social policy and administration from the London School of Economics.

He was elected to Winnipeg city council and made an unsuccessful bid for the mayor's chair in 1992.

In 1999, Selinger ran for provincial office and served under the affable and talkative Gary Doer, who resigned as premier in 2009 to become Canada's ambassador to the United States.

Selinger was viewed as the NDP's status-quo leadership candidate that year and beat out rival cabinet minister Steve Ashton. But he has steered the party slightly left from Doer's centrist position.

Selinger suspended the province's balanced budget law when the global recession hit, even though Manitoba's economy retained its slow-but-steady growth pattern. He boosted spending on education and health care and announced a plan to run deficits for five straight years.

He saw the recession as a time to prepare the province for a new economic landscape. The government increased funding for universities, community colleges and technical schools. It raised the minimum dropout age to 18 from 16 and introduced new apprenticeship training — all part of an education agenda that focused on skilled trades as much as on professions.

Selinger's plan reflects the two sides of his personality — an academic's grasp of the economy and a social activist's drive to ensure economic growth doesn't leave behind low-income earners and people who forgo university.

It's a drive based on what he saw in his youth.

"I think it came from seeing people struggle to make it and having empathy for that."