Named by Postmedia News as one of “9 Aboriginal movers and shakers you should know,” Wabanakwut (Wab) Kinew illustrates the ways in which leaders are perceived within Aboriginal communities. Many of the greatest Aboriginal leaders such as Métis rebel-patriot Louis Riel, the Canadian Member of Parliament and founder of the province of Manitoba, who is also described as a prophet and mystic, and who wrote fables, love poems, songs, and political and religious poems – excel in a range of activities including politi
cs, spirituality and the arts. Wab, for his part, is a spoken-word artist, radio and broadcast journalist, writer, administrator, budding politico and member of the Midewiwin Grand Medicine Society of the Anishinabek.
Wab, who has a B.A. in Economics and is currently completing a Master’s degree in Indigenous Governance, has guest-hosted CBC Radio One’s flagship morning show Q, hosted the acclaimed documentary series 8th Fire on CBC Television, and is also the host of the documentary program Fault Lines on Al Jazeera English television. But that’s just a sideline: his day job sees him behind a desk at the University of Winnipeg, where he is the Director of Indigenous Inclusion and Interim Associate Vice-President for Indigenous Relations. His mission, he says, is to get people “thinking about where we are in Canada today,” and his aim is wide. In addition to his work in media and academia, Wab has a deal with Penguin Canada to write a children’s book and a memoir (both due in 2015). And although he hasn’t had much time to devote to his hip-hop career in recent years, Wab’s spoken-word CDs still reach out to youth in Aboriginal communities. In 2009, his CD Live by the Drum won an Aboriginal Peoples Choice Award.
Born and raised on the Onigaming First Nation in northwestern Ontario (near Kenora), Wab is the son of the late Tobasonakwut Kinew, who was a residential school survivor, a local and regional chief, and Professor of Indigenous Governance at the University of Winnipeg – so he comes by his leadership and communication skills honestly. Wab, who considered running for National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in its December 2014 election, wants to create opportunities for dialogue on Aboriginal issues not just in Canada but around the world. As he told the Toronto Star, “I don’t want to be perceived as a spokesperson for indigenous people, but I want to be perceived as an advocate for saying that there is real value in indigenous cultures.”
Wab, who hosted the CBC Radio program Canada Reads from March 16 to 19 – where notable Canadians decided which Canadian book breaks down barriers by changing perspectives, challenging stereotypes and illuminating issues – believes that cross-cultural dialogue is essential in order to build a strong country where everyone belongs. “We do better when we work together,” he says. “We are all related and should treat [each other] as brother and sister.”
Like all good leaders, Wab has a vision of Canada’s future, and he works to motivate and inspire people to engage with that vision. “If we want a really honest reconciliation in Canada, it’s going to mean recognizing that there is value in indigenous cultures and in indigenous ways of life. The word ‘reconciliation’ implies two sides coming together, not one side fitting with the other,” he told the Toronto Star in a December 2014 profile.
Wab believes our common task is to reconcile the past in order to create a future defined by equity and inclusion. For him, that means living up to our civic responsibilities by getting involved in the conversation and working for change within our own communities. “I don’t think indigenous people are asking anyone to atone for the sins of their father,” he told the Star. “But what we’re saying is, because there is a challenging past in this country, you’re not going to be held accountable for what happened in the past, but it should motivate you to want to do some work now to level the playing field.”
“Change is possible,” Wab says. “It may take years, it may take a lifetime – it may even take generations – but eventually, goodness does prevail. Our humanity does carry the day. So be a good person. It is worth it. You can make a difference. It is the right thing to do.”
Watch Cape Breton University's 2014 Fall Convocation
Watch Wab Kinew – Heroes
8th Fire: Aboriginal Peoples, Canada & The Way Forward (CBC Television)
Where are the Children? (interactive website on residential schools)