Elections have become increasingly nasty in the age of social media. We are currently seeing this play out in Manitoba and in particular for well known Fort Rouge candidate Wab Kinew.
I have little tolerance for the misogynistic, homophobic words Kinew communicated in past years through music and social media. But I am also troubled by the implications of reacting, in in haste to words and actions that have long been apologized for by a man who has more recently demonstrated through concrete actions, that he has grown and changed. A man who has taken responsibility for his past and who now speaks out against misogyny, homophobia, racism and other acts of hate and abuses of power. And perhaps most important, an Indigenous man who has become an important role model to many Indigenous youth.
As a non-Indigenous Canadian I believe that we are at an important crossroads. How we respond in this situation is a reflection on what we understand our role to be in the much discussed process of reconciliation, as described in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future. There are those who have been quick to condemn Kinew and express suspicion of his intentions; others have been more reflective. Nobody I’ve spoken with condones Kinew’s past behaviour. But because people have seen a different Kinew in recent years, many are trying to make sense of how this intelligent, articulate young man could have said such terrible things.
Answers to our questions can be found in Wab’s book, The Reason You Walk. Kinew openly shares his personal experience as the son of a residential school survivor. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, thousands of residential school survivors and their families shared similar painful stories describing the intergenerational impact that residential schools have had for their families. This cannot have been an easy thing to do. Many did so for their own healing, but also in hope that non-Indigenous people would understand the serious and long-term damage done and move beyond apology to action. Through this process, Indigenous people have opened painful wounds in hope that the Government of Canada and non-Indigenous people are sincerely “sorry”.
As described in the TRC report, “the residential school system…was racist and discriminatory, bringing about a form of cultural oppression and personal shame that has had a lasting effect not only on those who attended the schools but also on subsequent generations.” The Commission describes reconciliation to be “about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behavior.”
So what does this have to do with Wab Kinew?
Wab Kinew’s story is an example of the intergenerational impact of residential schools. This doesn’t let him off the hook for what he has said and done in the past. Not all residential school survivors are misogynist or homophobic; such views transcend race, class, culture and experience. But I believe we need to consider the context that has led many Indigenous people to experience deeply rooted feelings of shame, self-hatred and anger – anger that is often projected toward others.
The TRC report asserts, “…reconciliation begins with each and every one of us.” The fact that Kinew has taken responsibility for his misdirected anger suggests that he is on a path to reconciliation. We have a responsibility to support him and others on that journey. Non-Indigenous people, like me, can start by understanding the deeply damaging effects of policies and programs, such as residential schools. Reconciliation requires that we participate in a process of healing and societal transformation. It also means sending a message to Indigenous youth that we are serious about change going forward. Many of these youth are watching to see how we are responding to Wab Kinew.
The TRC reminds us that the legacy of residential schools lives on. There is an overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the care of the child welfare system and a disproportionate victimization of Indigenous women and girls. Far too many Indigenous people live in poverty, drop out of school, find themselves incarcerated, struggle with addictions, are unemployed—and the list goes on.
This reality has led to an alarming number of Indigenous youth responding through self-harm and suicide. Many Indigenous youth are desperately seeking hope. Wab Kinew and other young Indigenous leaders like him represent this hope. Kinew talks openly about his own painful past and destructive behaviours. He encourages Indigenous youth to be proud of their indigeneity and to pursue their dreams. He also knows that systemic changes are needed and he actively advocates for Indigenous rights and policy reforms.
By not accepting Kinew’s apology, by not giving him an opportunity to lead, we send a dangerous message to Indigenous youth—that people won’t allow them to change.
Wab Kinew is making the right decision to continue as the NDP candidate in Fort Rouge and Mr. Selinger is doing the right thing to support him. This sends an important message to Indigenous youth. As we move forward, we will hold Wab Kinew accountable for present and future actions. And in the spirit of reconciliation, just as we expect Indigenous people to forgive us for our past mistakes, we must forgive Kinew for his.