Later this year, the Assembly of First Nations will choose a National Chief to replace Shawn Atleo, whose resignation in May derailed a $1.9-billion deal on First Nations education, and made Mr. Atleo’s perceived closeness to the federal government seem like a curse.
In that election, one likely contender would stand out starkly among the career chiefs who dominate indigenous politics in Canada.
Wab Kinew, Winnipeg rapper turned broadcaster, already has a public profile as a former CBC host and reporter, recently successfully championing Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda in Canada Reads.
On Thursday, it was announced that Mr. Kinew had himself signed a two-book publishing deal with Penguin’s Viking imprint, including a memoir, for release in fall 2015, a bold move for a man just 32 years old. But Mr. Kinew has ambitions, and 26,500 followers for his Twitter feed of aboriginal affirmation and studied lack of anger. He consciously seeks to engage Canadians at large, even as many aboriginal leaders seem to disengage.
His book deal aims at a broader constituency, with a more intimate approach. It is for the memoir, based on his father, and an inspirational children’s book. As such, it invites comparisons to Barack Obama, a rock star candidate whose election purged painful history, helped along by a memoir of his late father and an inspirational children’s book.
“My cousin Don Kelly, who’s a comedian, when I told him I was writing a book, he said, ‘Oh. Are you going to call it The Audacity of Wab?’” Mr. Kinew said in an interview Friday. “It’s a bit of a stretch for a broadcaster and a university type and a young person to set his sights on that goal [of National Chief], but at the same time I think people should ask what do they want in a national leader. Do they want someone who’s a communicator, somebody who can make our peoples understood to the mainstream? And thinking in those terms, I might make sense. That being said, I haven’t come to a decision yet.”
He only partly rebuffed the comparison to Mr. Obama.
“I do look to him for a model in what someone like myself can achieve … My main goal is to help our first peoples be better understood, because when I look around I still feel as though the truth is not told about who we are. In the past there was this lie that we were uncivilized, and today I think there’s new lies that have come up, around us being dependent, or not being good with finances,” Mr. Kinew said.
As a Winnipeg rapper, for example, he had a line: “We’ve gone from peace pipes to crack pipes.”
“There are social problems in our communities as well,” he said. “I want to play that ambassador role and help correct the record about our peoples. But at the same time I don’t just view myself as a First Nations man. I also view myself as a global citizen. I work with al-Jazeera America [as a journalist], so I sometimes joke I’m a native kid from northwestern Ontario who works for an Arab owned television network in the United States of America. That’s the reality of our world today.”
On First Nations affairs in particular, that reality is changing quickly. As he describes it, reconciliation is shifting from a social and spiritual project of healing after the historical crimes of residential schools and cultural oppression into a more political and economic project, focused on natural resources, economic development, constitutional law, and consultation. The climate, he says, is less oppressive, partly due to education and technology.
“There is progress. We’re in a time of transition,” said Mr. Kinew, who was recently appointed director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. “The challenge that we’re seeing now is that I think some people think just having the conversation is enough, just undertaking consultation is enough, and if we just fulfill the duty to consult then we can walk away believing we acted in good faith… The reality on the ground is that First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, if they feel that they haven’t been listened to, meaning that if they don’t give their consent, they will, one, take offence, and two, find other ways to make their voices heard. And I think you’re seeing an increasingly sophisticated array of ways to make our voices heard.”
The broad lesson of the Idle No More campaign, for example, is that the voice of the First Nations grassroots is powerful, he said.
He described growing disillusioned with economics, his major at the University Manitoba, but more recently coming to see economic development as the key tool of progress.
“If we want to be self-sufficient, independent First Nations, that’s only going to happen by creating wealth in our own communities and not hiving ourselves off from the global society, but rather participating in the global economy that’s developing all around us. That’s very much an economist’s world view, that I hold. The part that I became disillusioned with is I think it’s a bit of a leap to expect to be an economist in the world of academia and then to go out and make actual change in the broader society,” he said.
His children’s book is based on a rap about indigenous heroes, both modern such as Olympian Waneek Horn-Miller, and historical such as Sacagawea, the guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The memoir is autobiographical, but more about his father, a residential school survivor named Peter Kelly, also called Tobasonakwut. It is structured around 2012, the last year of his life, especially the Sun Dance ceremony, a rite of thanksgiving that marked one of the last times his family was all together, in which participants pierce their skin with pegs, and pull against them, leaving scars.
“The idea behind it is we believe in God. We believe in a creator, but we believe that the creator made everything, and so we can’t really give an offering that’s meaningful, given that the creator made all these things around us. The only thing that we can really offer that is meaningful is a piece of ourselves,” he said. “In many traditions, those who suffer are the ones who become closest to God… Somehow there’s a strong connection between suffering and spiritual enlightenment.”
It is this bridge, between a sorrowful memory of the past and an optimistic vision of the future, that is the focus of the book, and also his broader political ambitions. It is not about himself, he said, because his own biography is still in its early chapters. He has two young sons, Dominik and Bezhigo, aged 9 and 6, and later this summer, he will be married in a traditional ceremony to Dr. Lisa Monkman, a general practitioner in Dauphin, Man.
“It is a bit early for me to be talking about the Wab Kinew story,” he said.