Wab Kinew: ‘Confronting the truth makes you stronger’

The musician and CBC broadcaster on running for office and his new book on reconciliation with both his country and his father


Wab Kinew is a university vice-president, musician, pipe carrier and CBC broadcaster. He is 33. Raised on the Onigaming First Nation in northwestern Ontario and in south Winnipeg, he is a son of Tobasonakwut Kinew, also known as Peter Kelly, a widely known Anishinaabe scholar and advocate for civil and language rights. Tobasonakwut was also a residential school survivor, taken from his home as a five-year-old. Kinew’s new memoir, The Reason You Walk, is a deeply personal story of a son’s reconciliation with his father, and a father’s reconciliation with his country.

Q: You were anointed by your father and members of your community as a leader. Do you see yourself heading a First Nations organization, or a city or riding?

A: I’d be open to all those things, but the change I really want to see is at the federal level. I’m pretty ambitious about what I want to do. I want to combat poverty in this country. I want to change the Constitution. And to do that, you need to be able to work with Quebec. You need to be able to get all the provinces on side. And I can’t do those things without a lot of experience, a lot of expertise and broad-based support. I’m cognizant that there is a lot I need to learn before I try, so I don’t mess things up too badly.

Q: What does that mean?

A: While I do want to get into public life, I’m in no rush.

Q: Why do you want to tackle the Constitution?

A: Section 91(24)* is responsible for a lot of the inequities that First Nations, Metis and Inuit people face, because we’re put under federal jurisdiction for a lot of our social services. I believe that Indigenous governments should be a separate constitutional order. I think it’s no surprise to anyone that Quebec is a distinct society. It is a nation within Canada. We should have a Constitution that reflects that. And I scratch my head as to why we have a monarchy in this country in this day and age, and everyone wants to reform the Senate. So, why don’t we do all that?

Q: So that means running as an MP?

A: Someday.

    Q: There’s been a lot of focus within the Indigenous community on whether or not people should be voting in this election.

    A: Yeah. I don’t hear anyone arguing against voting for your local chief or councillor. I’ve voted every time, since I was 18—every election, every level: First Nations, civic, school.

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    Q: Have you decided how you’re going to vote in October?

    A: I’m not really strongly partisan, but it’s definitely not going to be Conservative. I don’t think, on First Nations issues alone, anyone could vote Conservative, which is too bad, because, on fiscal issues, I would be 100 per cent open to a Conservative platform.

    Q: In your book, you write how you started off a very straight-shooting kid. Then at university, things got a bit screwy. What happened?

    A: I think I was rebelling against expectations that I would be the upstanding, straight-edged kid. It wasn’t a sharp turn, but, day after day, I started making poorer decisions. And in my third and fourth year of university, I’m getting arrested for drunk driving, or getting into fights and leading a self-destructive lifestyle.

    Q: Why did you choose to open up about it?

    A: I’m asking this country for truth and reconciliation and it would be hypocritical if I didn’t offer the truth about myself. And the same thing with my father—it’s not a flattering portrait of him.

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    Q: Truth is important to you.

    A: I feel that confronting the truth makes you stronger. That’s what I did in my own life. The book has also changed my life with respect to how I’m parenting my own sons.

    Q: How so?

    A: I’m too quick to anger. I have an idea of what I want to be as a parent: the compassionate, supportive dad. And yet, in the moment—when they’re not listening to me, and acting crazy—I’m all those things that I don’t want to be. So writing the book, reflecting on my father’s childhood, how he was raised by harsh disciplinarians and sometimes worse, and thinking about how he made me feel when he was parenting me, I recognize I’m making my sons feel that same way.

    Q: What does that tell you?

    A: That’s when I really understand, on the personal level, what the legacy of residential schools is in my family today. It’s not necessarily physical abuse or addiction anymore.

    Q: What, then?

    A: It’s preventing us from being the fullest embodiment of the values that we aspire to: love, kindness and respect. So for my dad, you showed weakness and you were beaten; or, you spoke the only language you knew, and you were beaten. In order to survive, he had to bottle up his emotions. So when he was a parent to me, it was: “Real men don’t cry.” I’m sick with a virus and it’s: “Real men don’t vomit.” Every time we’re working outside, it was, “Harder, faster, stronger.” A lot of that was positive. We were cultivated with a strong work ethic. But that negative attitude unleashed an anger in me. It’s something that I’m still trying to deal with to this day.

    Q: We’re here at Winnipeg’s National Summit on Racism, and I wanted to ask you about the racism you faced as a boy.

    A: I did see some pretty ugly racism: I was choked out by a teacher, attacked by adults at the community club. Growing up, I never heard the word “Indian” by itself. It was always with a nasty adjective before it: Effen Indian, dirty Indian, dumb Indian, stupid Indian. But as I’m older now, I recognize that’s a reflection of those people’s problems. But there is still a broader racism in Canadian society. A lot of times, it’s just by omission.

    Q: It affected your father’s cancer treatment.

    A: Yes. In Manitoba, he should have been eligible for a type of treatment, but he was denied because he’s a status Indian [and his health coverage was paid by the federal government, making him ineligible for the provincial program]. I don’t blame that for his death; we have resources. But it raises that question: Why does a First Nations man, in this day and age, have to ask if his life would be different—if he might live longer?

    Q: Growing up, how did you see your Indigenous identity?

    A: Race is a social construct; it doesn’t exist. Governments have tried for years to make us the Indian race, then the First Nations race and the Aboriginal race. But we’re not a race. We’re Indigenous nations. For me, more and more, it’s the Anishinaabe identity that makes sense to me. When I look in the mirror, I think of myself as a human being, then as Anishinaabe, then Canadian. But as a kid, the dichotomy—the distance between reserve and Winnipeg—forced me to confront my Indigenous identity.

    Q: As an adult, you’ve become fluent in Anishinaabemowin, in Ojibwe.

    A: It’s an ongoing process.

    Q: But you developed an app to help spread the language. Why?

    A: Language is one of the fundamental characteristics of nationhood, and it’s one of the fundamental characteristics that defines your identity as an Indigenous person.

    Q: For a long time, your father had trouble expressing love.

    A: One of the interesting things about the family reconciliation we went on is that it was parallel to the national conversation around our reconciliation.

    Q: Can you explain what that means?

    A: My father went on the journey toward forgiveness and reconciliation, which began with him being wronged in a very ugly way by this country, by the government, by the Catholic Church, and that led him to do wrong. But he fixed himself. At the end of his life, he moved toward forgiveness.

    Q: What did you learn from that?

    A: He taught me that it’s never right to cede the moral high ground. You should always embrace the good, and do the right thing—very simple, but difficult lessons to walk and practise, day to day.

    Q: There’s a point where you realize your dad, once alien to you, had become your best friend.

    A: Yeah. I can’t take credit for it; we did it together. We just said: We are going to take the time. This is more important than anything else. It’s family first.

    Q: That meant taking time away from the CBC.

    A: I took an unpaid leave. My sister came back from Harvard and our whole family made sacrifices to be there with [my father], to cook meals for him, to drive him to chemotherapy.

    Q: How did it change you?

    A: In becoming a parent, I learned that you have the more compassionate side, the more fully realized version of your humanity, in part revealed to you. But I also realized that you can get the other half of that equation by being there for someone, in shepherding them at the end of their life. Something happens to you. And they’re both powerful.

    Q: We’re at a critical moment, awakening to crimes committed against Indigenous peoples. Nowhere does this appear more apparent than in Winnipeg.

    A: This has always been a powerful place, going back to when it was a meeting place for Indigenous nations. It’s why we call it Manitoba—“the land where spirit lives.” It would be fitting, and powerfully symbolic, but it won’t happen by accident. People have to stand up and say: This matters to me. Seeing Tina Fontaine pulled out of the river is not reflective of the city that I want. Seeing the racism that I experienced as a boy is not reflective of the community that I want. People have to take ownership of that.

    CORRECTION: A previous version of this article conflated Section 91 of Canada’s Constitution with the Indian Act. Maclean’s regrets the error.

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