Father Complex

A First Nations celebrity dissects his complicated paternal heritage.

The recent conclusion of quantitative research on epigenetic inheritance, the concept that environmental influences from everything from smoking to stress can affect the genes of one’s children—and even grandchildren—is likely no news to Wab Kinew. As a public personality and broadcaster, Kinew, whose aloof father’s experiences informed his life and choices, is acutely aware of how inherited trauma has shaped his own life.

This awareness is recreated in the early chapters of his memoir, The Reason You Walk, which narrates early life of Tobasonakwut—Kinew’s father—in residential schools in northern Ontario. Called “Ndede” (pronounced “egg”), Tobasonakwut suffers physical, mental and sexual abuse, all under the Canadian government’s implemented policy to “kill the Indian in the child.” Additionally horrifying is the fact that at St. Mary’s Residential school in Kenora, Ontario, Tobasonakwut is subject to nutritional experiments payrolled by the Canadian government. These experiments were performed on indigenous children from 1942 to 1952, and involved feeding starving indigenous children banned food additives to measure the nutritional and dental effects of malnutrition.

Kinew enters his father’s story in 1982, during Tobasonakwut’s second marriage and third family—Tobasonakwut fathers his first child in residential school, with his  girlfriend, but the baby is taken away and adopted by an Anishnaabe family near Owen Sound. Born to a policy analyst and academic referred to only as Kathi, Kinew is raised under the shadow of his father’s many traumas—namely the loss of his only two other sons to suicide and an accident—and the glow of Ndede’s enormous spirituality and personality. Ndede is not just aloof; he is absent and angry as a father. Kinew has difficulty connecting with him until he is an adult, and past his turbulent adolescence and brushes with the law.

It is easy to relate to why having an extroverted and famous father like Ndede, an elected leader and traditional chief, would be challenging. Due to the genocide of the First Nations people and destruction of their culture and language, Ndede, like many of his generation, failed to learn how to parent. Although he was never physically abusive, he is quick to judge and yell at his children. He overcomes alcoholism and self-defeat, and successfully grows intellectually, spiritually and psychologically throughout his life. But his constant struggle with his only living son indicates that, as a father, Ndede is a difficult and complex man.

Perhaps this complexity is best illustrated by Ndede’s penchant for adopting other sons and brothers—interestingly, he adopts no women, although he fathers another daughter in the United States, outside his marriage with Kinew’s mother. Most dramatically, Ndede adopts the Roman Catholic bishop of Winnipeg to show his dual Christian and Anishnaabe spirituality; this act is pitched as a gesture of good faith in the truth and reconciliation effort.

For the most part, Kinew makes no comment on his father’s semi-celebrity status; Ndede’s seeming difficulty in honouring his numerous personal and political commitments is not an issue for Kinew, as it is for some of his siblings. Although Kinew acknowledges his father had a following with the Lakota, which accounts for his many absences from the family, he finds it hard to accept another reason for Ndede’s absences—the pouring of his knowledge and energy into American indigenous people, creating a sort of Native brain-drain effect:

I was jealous of those people … what the hell Ndede was doing down south teaching these things to people he had only known a short time while I drove hundreds of kilometres on my own to learn more about our ways.

Through his own fatherhood and Ndede’s cancer diagnosis, Kinew’s own maturity and involvement with his indigenous culture evolves. He undergoes spiritual peyote quests and Sundance piercing rituals with Ndede, which allow him to come to terms both with his father’s beautifully flawed humanity and his enormous role in his own life. As with most difficult yet much-loved parents, it is clear that Kinew feels deep ambivalence toward his father. This ambivalence occasionally manifests itself in a flat, uninspired writing style that seems overly careful and self-conscious about eulogizing his late larger-than-life parent and less invested in sustaining the tension explicit in fiction and ­non-fiction.

Yet, even with its lack of tension, The Reason You Walk is a valuable memoir for anyone interested in First Nations studies and culture. It not only provides readers with the broad yet intimate strokes of Ndede’s incredible life, but also tells his and Kinew’s story from a position that raises new and vital questions and issues about the intergenerational conflicts among First Nations people, a topic rarely explored in mainstream culture.

Two examples that stand out both revolve around Kinew’s own one-step removed relationship to the residential school experience. The first occurs when he threatens to quit his CBC job in 2008 when the national broadcasting corporation makes it clear that its aim is to reflect the government’s policy: to refer to residential school survivors as “former students” and not “survivors.” His inflammatory reaction, although justified, is reframed when one of his sisters acknowledges that Kinew is doing the right thing but that it is too bad he will lose his good job as a consequence. Sharing his political knowledge, Ndede advises diplomacy: “You can’t aim to humiliate your opponent. You have to give them a way out.”

This same theme reappears when Kinew is confronted by a residential school survivor, after Kinew states to a crowd of young Canadian students that none of them is personally responsible for residential schools. The elder later attacks Kinew after his talk. Kinew becomes “no longer a public figure or [a] good Anishinaabe who respects his elders,” as he argues that his own, although removed, residential experiences are also part of the systematic genocide. In this powerfully raw exchange Kinew’s own experiences of racism are dismissed and diminished. In his trademark gentle fashion, Kinew acknowledges that Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will always be inadequate, and humbly accepts the fact that it is not his place to offer forgiveness on survivors’ behalf.

The fact that Kinew is half-Canadian and half–First Nations makes his story relatable to any first-generation immigrant Canadians who may find their own experiences eclipsed by the horrors and privations of their parents. What can older generations of trauma offer younger ones? How can younger generations learn from the travesties of the past to never again re-create oppression and genocide? These questions are always of the forefront of Kinew’s memoir and they are the reason we breathe, we live, we walk.