This year Canadians celebrated their 150th anniversary since Confederation. Though the Canadian Government made a great effort to celebrate this milestone anniversary, in true Canadian fashion, the date brought a lot of conflicted feelings and introspection to many Canadians. So while most of us still celebrated the extraordinary accomplishments of this country, many also took the time to reflect on our past and the historical wrongs that have been inflicted towards our Indigenous peoples.
I have also had, through my work in the past five years, a wonderful opportunity to explore more in depth some of the complex issues facing Aboriginal peoples in Canada and the role that the government has played in perpetuating them through ineffectual policies. It is in this context then that a few months ago I picked up Wab Kinew’s 2015 memoir The Reason You Walk, a book that moved me deeply and that I feel would be a good introduction to this topic for many Canadians. A versatile artist with successful careers as a hip hop musician, as a CBC reporter, and currently a politician in the running for the leadership of the Manitoba NDP, Kinew is also the son of a residential school survivor, a fact that deeply impacts his life and informs his first memoir.
Indian Residential Schools, which ran from the 1880s until the mid 1990s, are one of the darkest and most painful episodes in Canadian history, one that we are still coming to terms with as a nation. Like thousands of Indigenous children in the 1940s (records indicate that about 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children attended the schools), Wab Kinew’s father, Tobasonakwut, was sent to a residential school at the age of five. There, he suffered not only the separation from his family and the forced loss of his culture, but terrible abuse at the hands of the nuns running the school. Shortly after his arrival at the school Tobasonakwut was also raped by a nun. In describing the horrors and suffering that his father endured, one can feel Kinew’s pain at having to write about them and speak of them out loud. But that is precisely what is needed for these events to be imprinted in all the readers’ mind, for the pain that residential school survivors and their families are still living with today is very real. It also makes Tobasonakwut’s path towards healing and forgiveness all the more poignant.
Though their relationship was strained when Kinew was a child and young man, Kinew’s relationship with his father as he gets older reflects Tobasonakwut’s own path towards forgiveness and reconciliation. As a child of a residential school survivor, Kinew is directly impacted by the effects of intergenerational trauma: anger, alcoholism, and suicide all tragically touch his family before and after Kinew is born. But The Reason You Walk is about overcoming all of this through love, self-knowledge, and a deep connection with your own heritage and culture. It’s no coincidence that, after Tobasonakwut is diagnosed with cancer, Kinew and his father rebuild their fragile relationship through the study of the Anishinaabe language, creating a program for children and developing an app and dictionary.
Kinew is also at his best when describing Anishinaabe teachings and culture, its depth and lyricism; these are the most beautiful passages of the book, often vivid and immersive. The theme of reconciliation, brought to national consciousness by the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008, is at the core of the book: what does reconciliation mean? Can it be achieved? The answer is best exemplified through Tobasonakwut’s experience with his own beliefs, forever divided between his Anishinaabe spiritual beliefs and the Catholic teachings he received for the ten years he spent at the residential school.
In the end, Kinew’s father was able to reconcile the two and find peace within himself and those who represented the pain of his past. He was also able to reconcile with himself and his mistakes, and in turn with his family. Kinew, with writing that contains all the love and compassion that a child has for an ill parent, helps us as well to see how we can follow this path – as children, as brothers and sisters, as individuals across cultures and religions, as Canadians facing ourselves, our future and our past.
Featured photo courtesy of Wab Kinew via CBC.