Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew

This was a difficult but important book to read - I think every Canadian should read it to gain greater understanding of our Aboriginal population.  Kinew is the son of a residential school survivor.  His book is really the story of his father, the survivor.  While it covers the period of his father's childhood, adulthood and beyond, the focus is on the relationship the men develop in the year leading up to his father's death from cancer.

Kinew's father, Tobasonakwut or Ndede (Ojibwe for my father), was plucked from his parent's home at the age of five.  He was forced into a residential school where he was emotionally, physically and sexually abused by both nuns and priests.  The leaders of the school took seriously their goal of beating the Indian out of these children.  Ndede told horrific stories of a friend who was beaten to death while the priests looked on, or being beaten for not kneeling at his father's grave (the Ojibwe tradition is to stand rather than kneel).  Miraculously, after a bout with drinking and fighting, Ndede stayed away from alcohol and focused on his education.  He also had three children from a first failed relationship.  Unfortunately his anger and inability to show love continued - and one of these children committed suicide.  A second was killed young in a car accident.

While in Toronto, Ndede met the woman who would become Kinew's mother, an upper middle class white woman whose open minded family accepted him better than most might have.  She moved to a reserve and then Winnipeg with him and together they had two children, Kinew and his sister, Shawon.  He did stray one more time and had another daughter, but remained married to Kinew's mother until his death.

Kinew himself struggled with alcoholism and fighting in his twenties but pulled himself together for his sons - and became a very successful journalist.  But his honest account of his family life showed how the residential schools have a lasting effect on generations of families.  Children taken from their homes do not have role models for parenting, and are angry and have been abused.  They thus have difficulties showing love and raising their own children - who then, sadly, can carry that experience to the next generation.

Kinew describes incredible native traditions (especially the sundance) which he shares in with his father and other family members.  He also captures the paradox of his father's continuing interest in the Catholic traditions - there are amazing scenes of his father giving the Pope two Eagle feathers - which the Pope accepted and Ndede took as a sign of reconciliation; and a ceremony where he adopts the Archbishop of Winnipeg as his brother.  Though the most poignant scene was his forgiveness of the Archbishop on his death bed.

One of my favourite stories was a legacy Kinew has left for all Canadians - when he was a young journalist at CBC Winnipeg, the ethics committee sent a memo saying residential school survivors should not be called survivors as they did not fit the definition.  Instead they should be called "former students".  Kinew sent a memo reasoning with the ethics committee - saying in fact they did fit the definition and, moreover, it would do a disservice to merely call them students which in future generations would convey the wrong message.  He was initially rejected and threatened to quit his position over it, but ultimately with the support of more senior reporters successfully changed the CBC's official position on the use of the word survivor.

While occasionally the writing style was hard to follow - I sometimes forgot who various players were and there were a lot of Ojibwe expressions which are explained but are difficult words to parse for non-Ojibwe speakers - this did not detract from the readability of the book and, as I said above, I think this is a really important book to read too.

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