The Next Chapter

Wab Kinew on the legacy of residential schools

For Wab Kinew, 2012 started with a new job as the host of a new CBC show, Eighth Fire, and ended with his father’s death from cancer. It’s this year that’s chronicled in his powerful new memoir.
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For Wab Kinew, 2012 started with a new job as the host of a new CBC show, Eighth Fire, and ended with his father's death from cancer. It's this year that's chronicled in his powerful new memoir, The Reason You Walk.

Kinew's father, Tobasonakwut, was a prominent political and spiritual leader for aboriginal people in Canada by the end of his life, but his journey was not an easy one. As a survivor of the horrific residential school system, where many First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, Tobasonakwut grew into an alcoholic, violent man.

Despite a tumultuous upbringing, Kinew's relationship with his father was salvaged in the last year of his life. In this interview with The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers, Kinew reflects on the legacy of anger he still struggles with.

ON INHERITING ANGER FROM HIS FATHER

"I went out into the world as an angry young man in my high school and early university years. I ended up getting into a lot of trouble. Not just mom-and-dad-trouble, like real, legit, getting arrested trouble, for drinking and driving or getting into fights. I've seen the worst of it. 12 or 13 years ago, I was sitting in a jail cell, wondering if I was going to be able to make bail. I don't present that because I'm trying to make excuses for myself. I present that merely for the purpose of understanding. My father was put into a situation where he was powerless. It unleashed anger and rage inside of him, and that unleashed something in him that overtook a big chunk of his life. My experience growing up wasn't as severe as his was by any means, but it was similar in that I was made to feel powerless. Instead of a priest and a nun, it was my father."

ON THE LEGACY OF RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS

"Now as I'm an adult, I look at how I parent and I recognize that, more often then I would like, I'm creating the same situations for my own sons to grow up with. I am still on the journey to dealing with my own anger and still on a journey with blocking that out and shielding my kids from it. To me that's the legacy of residential schools. That's the thing that was unleashed in those institutions that we're still carrying in our families and our communities today. It's the thing that while we may not want to alleviate of ourselves of our responsibilities, if we understand the trajectory and the path by which it is transmitted, we might be able to work towards doing the hard internal work in our own hearts, in our own spirits, in our own minds, to be able to make ourselves better parents, to be able to make ourselves the generation where that is going to stop."
 

ON JAIL AND HIS PERSONAL TURNING POINT

"I had a spiritual experience in a jail cell. I felt a presence beyond a human presence in the room and I decided, 'Yeah, this ain't me. I don't know what I'm doing here.' Then once I made bail, right before we left for the Sundance (an annual four-day ceremony), my mom talked to me. She said, 'What happened to you? This isn't the boy that I raised.' And the truth of that cut me to my core. I went to the Sundance and that was the year they made me a chief. They put the war bonnet on my head, the feathered headdress. It was a message clear as day to me, from the older generation, that it's time for you to become a man. It's time for you to stand up and be a responsible person. Not because you are anything special, not because you deserve to have a good life, but because you owe that debt to your community. It wasn't an immediate change. It takes years to change learned behaviour."