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.