'There's still a path forward': Wab Kinew reflects on Canada Reads and the meaning of reconciliation

The Manitoba NDP leader talks about what it was like preparing for the debates, later reading the controversy around the author he successfully defended and his hopes for the show in the future.
Wab Kinew is the leader of Manitoba's New Democratic Party. Prior to his career in politics, Kinew was a hip hop musician and broadcaster, hosting the CBC series 8th Fire and Canada Reads in 2015. (Rachael King)

Back in 2002, a radio program dedicated to uplifting and highlighting Canadian literature launched. Coined a "literary Survivor," Canada Reads has artists, celebrities and prominent Canadians debate books in order to determine which title will be crowned the one book the whole country should read.

To celebrate 20 years of Canada Reads, we are looking back on the show's dramatic history to bring you interviews with past panellists and authors.

We're celebrating the great Canadian book debate's 20th anniversary! Host Ali Hassan looks back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show’s history and speaks with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them.

Wab Kinew is the only person to have ever been both a panellist and host of the show. Kinew, the leader of Manitoba's New Democratic Party, competed as a panellist in 2014, when he successfully defended The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. He was the Canada Reads host in 2015. 

Kinew is the author of The Reason You Walk, a memoir about mending his relationship with his father, and Go Show the World, a children's picture book that highlights Indigenous heroes throughout history. His latest, Walking in Two Worlds, is a YA novel that follows a shy Indigenous teen who finds comfort and belonging through multiplayer video games.

Ali Hassan spoke to Kinew about his experience on Canada Reads

Let's start with the year you were the winning panellist. When you got the call for Canada Reads, what was that like? 

It's pretty exciting. I definitely had an advantage: not only had I listened to candidates over the years, but I also knew a few past winners. One in particular lives in Winnipeg — John K. Samson, who won it twice.

I reached out to John K. and asked for advice and said, "What do I need to do to win this thing?"

So when I got the call, I was excited to be part of the show. Then I reached out to John K., and asked for advice and said, "What do I need to do to win this thing?" I guess his advice helped — though maybe not in the way that I expected. When I asked him for his advice, I took him out for coffee. He said, "When I was on the show, I focused on being really nice to everybody around me and everything worked out."

I started talking to some other friends about that and I was saying, "John K. has said just be really nice to everybody." Then these two guys I was talking to, they looked at each other, then they looked back at me and said, "Well, you know, that worked out for John K. because he's really nice, but you're a different kind of person, so you're going to have to have a different approach when you go to Canada Reads."

Let's talk about how you prepared for the show. 

First of all, I read the books. We can't take anything for granted, so I definitely read the books, and I tried to think about it like a debate. What are the strengths and the weaknesses for each of them, including my own? Then I did a little bit of social media testing. I went on Twitter and I posted some of the arguments and some of the lines that I thought were relevant to the different books. And I looked at which tweets got the most likes. Then I tried to focus in on those tweets to prepare for the actual show. 

The book you defended in 2014 was The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. And then two years later, an investigation by Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network revealed that Boyden had been misrepresenting his Indigenous heritage. What was that revelation like for you at that time? 

I was reading the media coverage along with everyone else. I spent my time thinking about it. I ended up writing an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail that I think still does capture the way that I feel about it. It basically says, "OK, so this has happened. There's still a path forward for Joseph, if he wants to put the time in and work on relationships — because that's something that I've seen in my own life many times over."

Life is long and there's always an opportunity for reconciliation to make things whole again. 

What do you think it meant for your win on Canada Reads and the legacy of The Orenda, which you so passionately championed for that week?

It's an interesting question. I don't know if there's an asterisk next to it, but I do feel like the arguments that I put forward on the show are things that I do believe in and are important for Canadians to think about. There is an Indigenous history that we all need to learn about, and there are different perspectives that come along with Indigenous peoples. Reconciliation is not just a second chance at assimilation. It's not just, "OK, we were maybe a little bit misguided in the past, but this time we'll get it right." It really is about being inclusive, in the sense of being willing to accommodate, modify and change the way our society works so that Indigenous peoples and our worldviews can really be fully included. Those are still things that I very much stand by and believe in. But if I were asked to present that perspective now, I would probably choose a different author, a different book. 

Reconciliation is not just a second chance at assimilation ... It really is about being inclusive.

Let's talk about 2015, when you hosted the show. Is preparing to host versus preparing as a panellist easier, harder or something different altogether? 

It's different because the pressure is different. It's a big production and [as a host] you have the pressure of delivering a live performance, a good show, something that's engaging, something that the audience wants to laugh or cry along with. As a panellist, I felt a different kind of pressure which was: don't let down the author, don't let down the publisher, don't let down the reader.

It's very much different. It's difficult to compare the two experiences. But what I would say is that Canada Reads has a little micro-culture around it. It's a very fun place to be. I find it to be a very, very rewarding place to be.

The states, the U.K., they have Big Brother. And our country has a reality show about books.

It also says something about our country. The States, the U.K., they have Big Brother. They have these romantic shows where hot singles get locked onto an island together and have to sort it out. And our country has a reality show about books. I think that says something about Canadians, it says something about the public broadcaster. I do think that it reflects well on our society, that we have a fun, lively, vibrant show that also is literary and encourages people to develop a lifelong love for the written word. 

In 2021, Devery Jacobs successfully championed Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. What was it like watching that victory?

I was very impressed. First of all, Devery did an amazing job as a champion and I was very proud of her performance. I thought it was an important title to celebrate as well, because that's a voice that needs to be heard. Checking out that novel and hearing not just a two-spirit Indigenous writer, but also a young voice finding their rhythm and their cadence as an author was a very, very special experience for me.

Right now there is a voice, and myself, maybe being a little bit too old, I can't articulate that. But somebody like Joshua, somebody championed by Devery can articulate that.

But Jonny Appleseed definitely speaks to not just the Indigenous resurgence that we're seeing in literature, but also to the particular flavour of Indigenous youth culture right now. There may be this bigger Indigenous resurgence that's been happening and building up over the past decade. Right now there is a voice, and myself, maybe being a little bit too old, I can't articulate that. But somebody like Joshua, somebody championed by Devery can articulate that. I think it's really important for Canada to hear that. It's good that this show could be a venue for that. 

Canada Reads 2021: Finale Highlight

2 years ago
Duration 1:49
Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking face off on the final day of the battle of the books.

We're celebrating 20 years of Canada Reads. What would you hope to see happen in the next 20 years of Canada Reads

I definitely hope it continues and continues to be a platform for emerging writers. I hope it continues to be a place of discovery for the reader, even the panellists like me. I knew some of the authors. I read a couple over the years previously, but others were an introduction to me, like Kim Thúy and Rawi Hage. Those are very amazing authors — just extraordinary. I hope that the people who watch and listen and absorb the show have the same experience of discovery. But at the end of the day, hopefully every year you can continue to provide a platform for five titles to get the spotlight and to get that boost of interest that they still rightly deserve.

I hope it continues to be a place of discovery for the reader.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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