“We offered our sacrifices and asked that my father be healed. But the sun dance is not a transaction.”
When his father received a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2012, Canadian journalist and musician Wab Kinew resigned his position with the CBC in order to spend more quality time with him. Tobasonakwutiban was a respected Anishnaabe elder, a sun dancer, and one of a shrinking number of fluent speakers of Anishnaabemowin. After being raised by this somewhat physically and emotionally distant man, Kinew sought to absorb as much their culture from his father as possible before the disease could claim him, and in doing so deepen their relationship. The Reason You Walk centres on the father-son bond, and the role keeping their culture alive played in developing that closeness.
The Reason You Walk employs the standard autobiography format; Kinew begins at a critical moment, and then flashes back to show how he came to that point. In this case however, he goes back further and begins with his ancestors, showing how they were taken into the residential school system, and the tragic legacy that left in his family. This extension is critical to understanding his father, who forms the centre of the story. While Kinew spends some time on his own transformation from wayward youth to responsible community leader, mostly he is moving through time to get to his father’s final months. The fact that the book was published so shortly after his father’s death also speaks to its central role as a form of processing grief and remembering his father’s legacy.
I first encountered Wab Kinew as the defender of The Orenda by Joseph Boyden in the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. He quickly showed his skills as a powerful orator, and shepherded the novel to victory, successfully defending the extreme violence of the narrative. The next year, he replaced Jian Ghomeshi as the presenter of Canada Reads, and was scheduled to return in 2016 before he announced a run for office in the Manitoba legislature. Kinew writes clearly, but for the most part he is not nearly as articulate in print as he has shown himself to be with the spoken word. Yet the narrative is thoughtful, and decidedly vulnerable. There are shining moments where his writing is as powerful as his oration, most notably when he recounts his father’s death. In a series of short sentences verging on poetry, he describes how everything that doesn’t matter is stripped away until all that is left is love (see p. 249).
For me the hardest part of the book to connect to was the religious aspect, which was a lot of it given that Aboriginal culture and spirituality are so deeply intertwined that they are almost indistinguishable. I pondered this recently when I was reading The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, but it is even more noticeable here. Kinew himself admits that it is hard to describe a vision quest to someone who has never experienced one without sounding ridiculous. However, I did find his father’s religiousness very interesting, given the way it hybridized his Catholic upbringing and his Anishnaabe roots. He seemed to exemplify reconciliation in the way he approached the Church that was responsible for his residential school experiences. His pursuit of reconciliation lead him to adopt a Catholic Archbishop into his family, and even to travel to Rome in the last months of his life to witness the canonization of the first Aboriginal saint, Kateri Tekawitha. As for the truth aspect of truth and reconciliation, Kinew brings a great deal of that to the table, discussing how his father was sexually assaulted at residential school, and sharing their mutual struggles with alcohol in their youth.
The Reason You Walk combines meditations on mortality with the importance of preserving Aboriginal culture in Canada, and emphasizes the role of truth and reconciliation. While the book was definitely more religious than I might usually read, it was interesting to contrast an insider’s experience on Aboriginal spirituality with pop culture depictions of it. Kinew might not write quite as well as he speaks, but he has interesting things to say, and unique perspectives to share.
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