RBC Taylor Prize

For Wab Kinew, the personal is political

In tracing his relationship with his dad, Wab Kinew finds one between Indigenous peoples and Canadians

Wab Kinew. (Photograph by Kayla Chobotiuk)

Wab Kinew. (Photograph by Kayla Chobotiuk)

The more that Winnipeg broadcaster and musician (and recently declared political candidate) Wab Kinew reconnected with his cancer-stricken father, Tobasonakwut, in 2012, during the last year of his life, the more Kinew saw echoes of wider themes in Canadian history. Tobasonakwut, a prominent traditional chief, had been severely harmed by the residential school system. He had been distant and at times harsh to his children, before courageously dedicating himself to reconciliation and healing. “I felt the story of his life was a microcosm of the relationship of Indigenous peoples and Canadians, and between him and me,” Kinew says. “First discovery, then committing the time and effort to build the relationship—what became the most important relationship of my life—and then achieving it.” It was a story, Kinew thought, that deserved the wider audience his RBC Taylor Prize-nominated The Reason You Walk has given it. Perhaps it will help, he says, in taking “that last step, achieving the relationship, which has not yet happened on a national scale.”

The following is an excerpt from The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew. Copyright © 2015 Wab Kinew. Published by Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

If you were to enter the centre of the sundance circle, then you would understand the beauty of what happens there.

The shake of the cottonwood trees in the breeze . . . the swing and sway of prayer flags of every colour tied to the branches . . . the chorus of cicadas singing a perfect soundtrack for the sweltering heat . . . the feeling of hundreds of supporters standing on the edge of the circle watching you.

The hot sand was starting to burn my feet. The sun’s radiance had burrowed deep into my skin, turning it a dark carmine-brown. My dried sweat left a thin layer of salt on my body. I could taste it as I licked my lips.

We had been dancing and fasting in this circle since long before dawn.

Chiefs and headmen formed a procession and walked to the south side of the arbour, where I stood. They took my father’s war bonnet from its perch and raised it toward the sky. The dozens of eagle feathers splayed around the headdress like a halo, each representing an act of valour while the intricate patterns of glass beads caught the light of the sun. The PA system crackled.

When they brought the war bonnet down from the sky and placed it on my head, war whoops and ululations rose from those around the circle. They had made me a chief.

The sundance leader laid down a small box, opened it, and withdrew a treaty medallion. Placing the medallion in my hands, he reminded me of the significance of the treaty relationship: the commitment to share the land with newcomers. On one side of the medallion was a profile of George Washington. The other showed two hands shaking. One hand was European. The other was Indigenous. We are all treaty people.

I nodded and thanked him. I was surprised by how heavy the medal was in my hands.

I turned my gaze to the earth. It had been two years since I was here last. I had strayed off the red road I had been taught to walk as a boy. I had turned my back on Ndede, my father. I had hurt many people, including those closest to me.

As the son of a hereditary chief, I had always known I would someday rise to this rank, but I assumed that day was far in the future. Perhaps it would arrive after I had achieved something great. Instead, it came when I was at one of the lowest ebbs of my life. My community, my family, and my father responded by giving me a second chance. That which was broken, they tried to make whole again.

All of this took place more than a decade ago. It was not the only time my father would pass something to me that I would commit to carrying into the future.

In the last year of his life, Ndede would go on a remarkable journey of hope, healing, and eventually forgiveness. The journey would take him to the greatest heights of some of the world’s most powerful institutions. Yet, in the end, it would resonate on the most basic level of existence that all of us share.

More than any inheritance, more than any sacred item, more than any title, the legacy he left behind is this: as on that day in the sundance circle when he lifted me from the depths, he taught us that during our time on earth we ought to love one another, and that when our hearts are broken, we ought to work hard to make them whole again. This is at the centre of sacred ceremonies practised by Indigenous people. This is what so many of us seek, no matter where we begin life.

This is the reason you walk.