Wab Kinew is the Tom Jones of Canadian media right now, though I'm pretty sure fans stop short of actually tossing skivvies on stage. (Correct me if I'm wrong; I wasn't at the Toronto launch that unleashed a tweet-flood of photos showing fans clutching their copies of The Reason You Walk, his just-released first book.) But unlike Jones, who seeks primarily to entertain, Kinew has spent much of his time in the media spotlight charismatically educating Canadians about life as an Anishinaabe. And in The Reason You Walk, he takes on the most pressing issue in Canada today: reconciliation.
This book combines Kinew's disarming personality and his willingness to share highly personal material – in this case, the life and death of his father, Tobasonakwut – to demonstrate the immense power of family and forgiveness as tools of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a layered process, and The Reason You Walk is equally stratified. Sure, it's Wab Kinew's name on the book, but the choice to open his own memoir with a detailed description of Tobasonakwut's childhood is purposeful; readers are encouraged to see current aboriginal issues as the product of multigenerational challenges. Kinew could not heal his relationship with his father until both men came to a place of acceptance and healing within themselves. And, not surprisingly, Tobasonakwut's journey begins at St. Mary's Indian Residential School.
Kinew minces no words describing the events at St. Mary's that affected his father. "…Tobasonakwut was called by a nun to her room, where the woman raped him. While riding him, she told him, 'That's all your people are good for …'"
One of Kinew's great strengths as a communicator is his ability to temper brutal truth with a shrug of humility. This tends to keep non-aboriginal readers who might be prone to the defensive "not my generation" stance open and listening. Tobasonakwut's traumatic youth made him an emotionally inaccessible father, but as Kinew says, "Part of the discomfort came from residential schools, part of it came from the era in which he was raised, and another part was probably just him."
Tobasonakwut's lifelong campaign of forgiveness is extraordinary. He goes so far as to take Archbishop James Weisgerber into his family through nabagoondewin, an Anishinaabe adoption and peacemaking ceremony. But don't be fooled, this peaceful stance is not a surrender. "The Vatican, the global Catholic Church, with billions of dollars at its disposal, its religious doctrine and ideology, couldn't destroy him or his culture. Four other Canadian churches had tried, as had the government of Canada, a nation bent on erasing indigenous identity." So you see, Canada, it's more like a gracious victory.
The effect this philosophy of forgiveness has on Kinew is clear, and over time, the connection these two men share in language, culture and blood enables Kinew to overcome his own challenging youth. But age eventually catches up with Tobasonakwut, and the family's behaviour in light of this is pretty amazing. Kinew leaves his job at the CBC, his sister puts her doctoral research on hold and the family spends months together, devoted to making the passing of this great man as comfortable as possible. Anyone who has tried to slot the grieving of a passed family member into a weekend, or even a month's unpaid leave, will find this story extraordinary.
Those looking for a play-by-play account of Kinew's youth might be disappointed – he does a better job of telling his father's story than his own. This improves significantly as the book progresses and the latter accounts of his participation at the sun dances are breathtaking.
Sections of The Reason You Walk read like broadcaster-speak: grandiose in scope but lacking in depth. "Everywhere along the way, I have been struck by the differences and unique expressions that humanity navigates and negotiates around this world. The salmon feasts of the Okanagan, the futuristic vision of the Emirates masking a deep inequality and the intersection of Western-style capitalism and Chinese culture." This kind of wind-baggy pronouncement is better in a speech than on the page, if anywhere. However, the undeniable significance of The Reason You Walk's message, and the fact that the book holds so much for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal readers, makes it a must-read. This is not just a memoir, it's a meditation on the purpose of living. As Kinew writes, "To be hurt, yet forgive. To do wrong, but forgive yourself. To depart from this world leaving only love. This is the reason you walk."
Carleigh Baker is a writer who lives on Galiano Island, B.C.