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Tag: residential schools

The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew

the_reason_you_walk_coverTitle: The Reason You Walk
Author: Wab Kinew
Publisher: Viking Canada
Format: Print (hardcover 1st edition)
Rating: 5 out of 5
How I got it: Borrowed a copy from the library

Wab Kinew has been a prominent voice for Aboriginal affairs in Canada for years. However, I only learned about him last year when he was the one defending Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda in the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. (I know, I know, I’m a typical Toronto-dweller who remains myopic about the rest of Canada.)

Kinew made me sit up and take notice when he talked about sundancing with his father, and how the pain of the sundance forces you to go beyond yourself, to distance yourself from your ego. I was electrified — he spoke with such passion, knowledge and conviction. Here’s the clip where he discusses it — the part in particular that gave me goosebumps starts around 3:19.

In that clip, he describes doing the sundance in the final years of his father’s life, and how, even though he was tired from dragging around the buffalo skulls in circle after circle, he realized that the pain his father, Tobasonakwut Kinew, was suffering during chemotherapy was even worse.

The Reason You Walk is the story surrounding that father-son relationship: of Kinew reconnecting with his father, following his father along the path of reconciliation, and coming to terms with the end of his father’s life.

Last week I wrote about The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, which was a fictional story of one Aboriginal man coming to terms with his culture’s legacy of pain and alienation due to centuries of mistreatment and oppression. In many ways, The Reason You Walk is a great complementary book — while they deal with many of the same issues, the personal aspects of Kinew’s book give it a greater depth of emotion and detail.

It helps that Kinew is a gifted communicator. Not only does he have a powerful sense of rhythm and poetry when he writes, but he also makes sure to give the things he discusses — like the history of the residential school system, or the structure of the Anishinaabe language — enough context that non-Indigenous readers can understand what he’s discussing.

And what a lot there is to discuss! Both Kinew and his father were involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. They both travelled across North America, connecting with tribes from across the continent and taking part in their ceremonies. They attended the canonization ceremony in Rome of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to become a Catholic saint. Together, Kinew and his father even developed a mobile app to teach young people the Anishinaabe language, thus allowing it to reach a wider audience than ever before.

What’s even more amazing is that many events happened within only a few years of each other, and were preceded by decades of outreach, education, pain, and labour. Kinew discusses both his father’s youth as a labourer and boxer as well as his own youth as a rapper struggling with alcohol — something his father also struggled with.

Tobasonakwut was a residential school survivor (a term that Kinew himself went to great lengths to legitimize within the CBC) and had every reason to resent the wider Canadian culture that killed his peers and robbed him of much of his heritage. Considering that, it’s amazing to realize how much of his life was devoted to greater cross-cultural understanding. He adopted the Archbishop of Winnipeg as his brother in an Anishinaabe ceremony. He also adopted other people into his family, like members of the Lakota nation that he first saw in a vision connected to a son of his who committed suicide as a teenager. Tobasonakwut’s life was filled with pain and anger, but The Reason You Walk shows all the ways in which he managed to move past that. His generosity of spirit has been awe-inspiring to read.

I’m now even happier that the University of Winnipeg will now require all new undergraduate students to take a course about Indigenous culture, because it means that there will be an even wider audience for this book. Both Wab and Tobasonakwut Kinew have been prominent academic figures at the University of Winnipeg, and The Reason You Walk is not only a memoir about their personal relationship, but also a record of just how much effort both men have put into preserving and promoting their culture.

Together, the two of them have done a lot to advance the cause of Indigenous culture in Canada, and I feel so grateful to read about their efforts.

I also connected with this book on a very personal level because the final section is heavily focused on Tobasonakwut’s final days coping with pancreatic cancer: Kinew’s family kept vigil by his bedside around the clock, helping him move, feeding him, and praying over him. I was rapt during those final pages because this was never an experience that I got to have when my own father died. My dad was taken away from me suddenly when I was barely a teenager; seeing how exhausting such efforts to keep vigil can be, I can’t tell whether I’m jealous or grateful that I never got the chance to do such a thing myself. It’s a weird feeling, but a poignant one.

I’m a big fan of books that take me outside of myself and help me understand other people better. I’m a fan of books that feature personal growth. It also helps when the prose itself is lovely. Kinew’s book is a success on all counts. I’ll leave you now with an excerpt of Kinew discussing the significance of the title “The Reason You Walk”. I had to stop and sit still for a minute to digest it when I read it:

After a feast, we closed the ceremony with the Anishinaabe travelling song that we use to close all our gatherings in Lake of the Woods country. I explained the lyrics “Ningosha anishaa wenjii-bimoseyan” — “I am the reason you walk.”

In Kwekwekipiness’s roundhouse long ago, Ndede [father] had explained that there are four layers of meaning to these words. They are from the perspective of the Creator, as though God himself were singing to you. The first meaning of “I am the reason you walk” is “I have created you and therefore you walk.” The second meaning is “I am your motivation.” The third meaning is “I am that spark inside you called love, which animates you and allows you to live by the Anishinaabe values of kiizhewaatiziwin.” The fourth and final meaning is “I am the destination at the end of your life that you are walking toward.”

On that day, the Creator spoke to us all, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, and reminded us of the reasons we walk.

The Outside Circle

The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

The Outside CircleTitle: The Outside Circle
Author: Patti LaBoucane-Benson
Illustrator: Kelly Mellings
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: Borrowed a copy from the library

At Trent University, my alma mater, the largest lecture hall on the main campus is Wenjack Theatre in Otonabee College. Upon hearing this, you might think that its namesake, Charlie Wenjack, was some philanthropist, or at least a corporate executive desperate for some gloss of academic legitimacy.

But he wasn’t. Charlie Wenjack was a 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy who died after trying to run away from a residential school. His body was found a week after he went missing, lying next to a railroad track.

In contrast, I never even learned what a residential school was until I started studying at Trent. For those who don’t feel like clicking on that Wikipedia link, here’s a basic summary courtesy of that page’s opening paragraphs:

The Indian Residential Schools were a network of “residential” (boarding) schools for Native Canadians (First Nations or “Indians”; Métis and Inuit)….The policy was to remove children from the influence of their families and culture, and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. Over the course of the system’s existence, about 30% of native children, or roughly 150,000, were placed in residential schools nationally.


There has long been significant historiographical and popular controversy about the conditions experienced by students in the residential schools. While day schools for First Nations, Metis and Inuit children always far outnumbered residential schools, a new consensus emerged in the early 21st century that the latter schools did significant harm to Aboriginal children who attended them by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, through sterilization, and by exposing many of them to physical leading to sexual abuse by staff members, and other students, and enfranchising them forcibly.

I’m still not sure what to make of Trent’s decision to name a lecture hall after him. In one way, it makes sure that we never forget Charlie Wenjack or others like him, who were chewed up and spat out by the residential school system. But also: isn’t naming an academic lecture hall after him kind of a slap in the face, considering that he died because our education system was operating under some pretty horrible assumptions? Also consider that I never learned about the residential school system at all until I was nearly 20. Why was such an important, destructive legacy of the country I live in swept under a rug for so long?

There’s a huge gap between Charlie Wenjack’s life and mine. It’s not even a gap: it’s a hungry maw full of shame, cultural denial, abductions, generational abuse, and broken lives that, for too long, have been denied the respect they deserve.

Is there any possible way to bridge this chasm? I don’t know, but I hope so. And I think that books like The Outside Circle are a crucial plank of that bridge.

Written by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, the director of Research, Training, and Communication at Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA), The Outside Circle is a graphic novel about Pete, a drug-dealing gang member who goes to prison for murdering his mother’s junkie boyfriend. Although his time in prison is rough, with the help of a long-term rehabilitation program that reconnects him to his First Nations heritage, Pete overcomes a history filled with crime, drug abuse, and intergenerational poverty to forge a new identity for himself.

Pete’s time within the rehabilitation program to find his inner warrior is spent smudging, talking with elders, taking part in sweat lodge ceremonies, spending time in the wilderness on a vision quest, and discovering new branches of his family tree. On top of this, his mother Bernice dies while he’s in treatment, and he worries that his younger brother, Joel, will go down the same crime-filled path if he doesn’t intervene. LaBoucane-Benson’s professional experience has definitely informed Pete’s story — although it’s fictional, it sounds like it’s a composite of the experiences of many young men in similar situations.

This composite method allows LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings, the artist, to paint in both fine detail and wide brush strokes. Pete’s story arc as he moves from rage to acceptance and strength is a bit too straight, and his final confrontation where he rejects his former gang is a bit too easily resolved. However, the scenes where Ray, the uncle that Pete found out about only after his mother’s death, details his family’s heritage, are powerful.

LaBoucane-Benson and Mellings also interweave Pete’s narrative with straight-up info-dumps about the history of the First Nations experience in Canada. For example, the legal form that Bernice signs to waive her parental rights over Joel transforms from just another legal document into a page-long summary of the history of the residential school system and how it reinforced the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

My favourite example of this technique of weaving the historical and the personal is when Violet, an elder at the rehab centre, draws a two-page spread of her own family tree with detailed iconography describing instances of sexual abuse, alcoholism, and early death. Violet’s family tree is a beautiful, yet potent, summing up of how these negative experiences compound over time.

That being said, this graphic novel is better understood as a tool for education rather than one for pure entertainment. Pete’s story, while compelling from a sociological standpoint, doesn’t deviate much from the typical redemption narrative. As well, many of the scenes where Violet talks about the violence and theft that Western culture inflicted upon the First Nations reads like Indigenous History 101.

This may sound like a condemnation, but I think otherwise. The topic of The Outside Circle is important! What’s more, the University of Winnipeg has just announced that it will require all undergraduate students to take at least one course about Indigenous people. This is tremendous news, and I hope that other universities, especially Trent University, follow its example.

I hope that this course requirement will help this graphic novel find a wider audience, because if there’s one book that should be required reading for such a course, The Outside Circle is it.

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