The first time Wab Kinew was strangled in public came while he was in elementary school in Winnipeg. Young Wabanakwut back-talked a substitute teacher who grabbed him by the throat and began choking him. As the Anishinaabe boy struggled, the teacher leaned in and quietly whispered a racial slur in his ear. When she eventually let him go, Kinew promised her his dad would “kick her ass.” That night, his father assured him that he wouldn’t be fighting his teacher – or anyone else – for him.
The second time Kinew was strangled in public came after he shouted a joke through the open doors of a community bingo hall. The bingo caller grabbed him by the throat and began choking him. As Kinew – still just a scrawny child – struggled, the man swore at him and issued a racial slur. This time, Kinew broke free of the chokehold on his own, pushing the man away.
“I was never raised to be somebody who would keep my mouth shut,” Kinew says. “I was raised to speak my mind. I hope that I’m starting to do that in a way that’s productive and not harmful.”
He is. In his teens, Kinew became a rapper in a group called Dead Indians and travelled North America performing. He then became a reporter, first for CBC Winnipeg and later for Al Jazeera America. He hosted the CBC documentary series 8th Fire, guest-hosted CBC Radio’s cultural program Q, became an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and is now associate vice-president of indigenous affairs at the University of Winnipeg.
Last year, the man who has grown from a back-talker into a passionate and eloquent speaker commanded national attention championing Joseph Boyden’s novel, The Orenda, on CBC’s Canada Reads. (This year, he hosted the competition.) The precise way Kinew spoke his mind, positioning The Orenda at the centre of a wider debate about aboriginal issues in this country, drew the attention of Penguin Random House Canada.
“He was a revelation on Canada Reads,” says Diane Turbide, Penguin Canada’s publishing director and Kinew’s editor. “His intensity, his articulateness, his presence, were very impressive. We all wanted to know more about this person.”
The Reason You Walk – the 33-year-old author’s new memoir, forthcoming in September from Penguin Canada – tells more. The book is Kinew’s attempt to add his voice to a conversation about truth and reconciliation, but not in the capital-lettered sense. It’s a deeply personal account of his father’s terrifying years in residential schools and the cascading trauma through Wab’s own life.
While tracing his family history, Kinew faces issues – a distant, emotionally battered parent; a struggle with alcoholism; a tendency toward confronting differences with violence – that can only be dealt with through self-analysis and self-clemency. His story has no filters. It pursues forgiveness, but not by running away from the ugliness that makes forgiveness necessary.
“This thing called reconciliation, whether it’s on a national level or on a really personal level between two people, it’s a messy thing,” Kinew says. “No one is perfect and we all have dark aspects of our personalities and challenges that we’re trying to work through.”
The search for reconciliation doesn’t always make for comfortable reading. Penguin Canada publisher Nicole Winstanley says this is part of what attracted Penguin to Kinew. Winstanley watched him in person on Canada Reads and worked hard to sign his memoir and his forthcoming children’s book, which is still a couple of years away.
“What’s exciting about this book is what was exciting about him [on Canada Reads]: the confidence and directness of his voice, the strength of his passion, and his pure, unadulterated honesty,” Winstanley says. “Wab makes you feel uncomfortable. Some books make you feel uncomfortable and you put them down. Some books make you feel uncomfortable and you realize you should have been uncomfortable with this all along.”
Kinew didn’t set out to write the definitive text about residential schools or reconciliation, or to become a figurehead – but he has. Boyden calls Kinew a bridge between native and non-native cultures.
“I don’t think it’s accidental that he’s become a spokesperson,” Boyden says. “I think it’s exactly what the country needs: they need to see strong, young aboriginal voices that are direct, that are unwavering in what they have to say, that do speak about reconciliation.”
Turbide agrees: “He’s an inspiring example of a modern, educated aboriginal, determined to hang on to the best of his culture, determined to see justice done.”
Kinew wants to show that the lines between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures don’t reflect what most Canadians imagine. He worries about being a good father, about respecting his partner, about relating to his parents, and about trying to find meaningful work. These are struggles that transcend any single community, though Kinew offers lessons from within his own to overcome them.
“The life that we lead is such that things are always being pushed apart and conflict is often being sown,” Kinew says. “So one of the primary skills we have to learn if we want to be good people is the ability to take things that have been broken apart and put them back together, the ability to take relationships that have been harmed and try to fix them.”
That, he teaches us, is the reason you walk. The reason you walk and, maybe, also the reason you speak.