Wab Kinew’s Influences: LL Cool J, Gandhi, and Dad
On Monday, September 28, a keen audience filled the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon for a young Canadian whose voice and message is turning heads. Wab Kinew, associate vice president of Indigenous affairs at the University of Winnipeg, rap artist, broadcaster, host of the CBC’s 8th Fire, champion for Joseph Boyden’s 2014 Canada Reads winning novel The Orenda and host of Canada Reads 2015. Kinew was at the Toronto Reference Library for the Toronto launch of his own book, The Reason You Walk.
The Reason You Walk is the story of Wab Kinew’s father, Tobasonakwut, a respected First Nations leader and Anishinaabe Chief who battled a dark past of physical and sexual abuse. A residential school survivor, Tobasonakwut embraced both Catholicism and his traditional native religion as he pushed past his traumatic childhood into a brighter future, building bridges between his people and non-Native Canadians. In 2012, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and Wab spent the following year reconciling with his powerful and impressive yet distant father. Paralleling this reconciliation, Wab embarks on a personal journey battling his own internal demons. His recounting of their relationship is filled with pain, hope, tragedy, and inspiration, and the book sets the stage for a wider conversation about the future of all Canadians as we embrace each other as one nation.
On behalf of Toronto First Nations and in recognition of all Aboriginal people, Wayne Moberly and sons Jayden Wemigwans and James Melonson welcomed Wab with traditional drumming and dancing, captivating the audience.
As Kinew and interviewer Carol Off came to the stage, Kinew’s charisma was on display in a short video of quips dispelling five stereotypes about Aboriginal people: alcohol, why can’t they just get over it?, all natives have long hair, what are you doing with your $7 billion? and taxes.
Kinew and Off’s conversation spanned many issues: residential schools, cultural genocide, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, and the upcoming federal election. Despite the seriousness and sadness of the discussion, Wab left the audience feeling uplifted and motivated, cracking jokes and sharing stories of small wins that have created fundamental impacts on our society, such as changing the language of identifying children who made it out of the residential schools not as students, but as survivors.
In reflecting on his father’s residential school experience, how it made him feel, and how he treats his own sons, Kinew said:
“[The book] was definitely a deeper dive than most of the other projects I worked on the past… In my mind I want to be Gandhi, I want to be Nelson Mandela, which is easy when you are on a rock in the middle of the bush up north but it’s tough to be that way when you are in Starbucks and the kids are climbing around all over the place or you are in Safeway and they are talking back to you…I recognized there are still aspects of my personality, in the way I carry myself in life, that I wanted to improve and [The Reason You Walk] gave me an opportunity to examine the history of those things and where it came from in my family.”
He said he didn’t think about writing a book until after his father passed. “Surprise!” he added, looking upward with jazz hands as chuckles rippled throughout the audience. He explained the goal of the book was to commemorate his father’s life and turn whatever negativity he had inherited to a positive outcome for the greater good.
Closing the evening, Off asked for Kinew’s thoughts on the building momentum in Aboriginal communities, in movements such as Idle No More, the Seventh Generation, and the comeback of First Nations. Kinew replied:
“A famous poet once said (his name was LL Cool J), and I paraphrase here, “Don’t call it a comeback because we’ve been here for years.”