2015 Jack Matthews Fellow Wab Kinew discusses Indigenous issues

Wab Kinew talks to Trent community members at a public lecture as part of the Jack Matthews Fellowship. By Keila MacPherson.
Wab Kinew talks to Trent community members at a public lecture as part of the Jack Matthews Fellowship. By Keila MacPherson.

The Jack Matthews Fellowship, created in 2008, honours the contributions that Jack Matthews made to Lakefield College School, Trent University and The Canadian Canoe Museum.

The fellow is chosen based on three criteria: how they bring relevant perspective to the three institutions, how they embody the values of global citizenship, and their value-based engagement with the world. The fellow stays at Champlain College for about a week and engages in activities at the university, Lakefield College, and the Canoe Museum.

The values that the fellowship expresses are ethical and physical engagement with the Canadian environment, public intellectual engagement, experimental education and social justice.

Previous years fellows have been important national and international figures such as Nikolas Dickner, Joseph Boyden, and Shelagh Rogers. This year, we were honored and privileged of having Wab Kinew with us.

Wab Kinew was born in Kenora and is from the Onigaming First Nation of northwestern Ontario. He has a degree in economics from the University of Manitoba and has pursued a career in broadcast journalism in CBC and Aljazeera America.

Currently, he is working as vice-president for Indigenous relations in the University of Manitoba. Mr. Kinew engages the Canadian public with the key problems of social justices through his broadcasting, his role as a Truth and Reconciliation commission (TRC) witness and his hip-hop music.

In terms of his role as a witness, Mr. Kinew’s expressed that the idea of the honorary witnesses is to carry on the mission of the TRC, especially after the commission ends. He stated that there is a lot that needs to happen about educating people in Canada about the residential school era, about making sure that the survivors’ voices continue to be heard, and about repairing the divisions that happened during that era. He explained that when he does public appearances, he always tries to talk about the residential school experience, how the legacy impacts Canada today, and what can be done to help repair the damage inflicted.

Being a witness is also significant for Mr. Kinew since his father went to a residential school, which he agrees had a big impact in their relationship. “Being a witness reminded me to continue talking about this and making sure my dad’s story is not forgotten. It is a strong commitment I made to keep talking about it”, he added.

On a personal level, Mr. Kinew argued that being a witness helped him solidify his connection to his father and gives him an opportunity to revisit and remember their relationship, how it was impacted by this and how they overcame any dysfunction to develop a friendship.

Talking about the process of reconciliation, Mr. Kinew argued that the biggest progress has been made on the educational system. He conveyed that today, most high school students learn about residential schools, and that in some regions such as Alberta it has been made mandatory from kindergarten to grade twelve.

In terms of media coverage, Mr. Kinew agreed that there is a greater awareness about the TRC events in the media. He argues that there is a lot more attention paid to Indigenous issues, year after year. For instance, media coverage on residential schools survivors’ request for justice, the TRC and the apology, the Ottawa housing crisis, and Idle No More movement are examples of the increasing media attention.

On the other hand, Mr. Kinew also asserted “there is a lot of ground that could be made up in terms of the accuracy and fairness of coverage”.

He recognized two main dynamics at work. First, that the majority of journalists were educated at a time when they did not learn much about Indigenous history and issues.
Mr. Kinew noted that he understands the pressures associated with working on a newsroom since news are filed on a daily deadline and this means that journalists cannot go read a 500-page history and do proper research.

However, he added that the deadlines and focusing only on the immediate crisis without the full context results in the pathologization of the group that you are talking about.

Furthermore, he added that there is also a problem of story selection bias.  He explained that mainstream media mostly reports on negative stories in general, and this is harmful in the Indigenous context because, since the majority of Canadians get their information about Indigenous people from the media, they tend to get a negative perception.

“If media are reporting on negative stories about Indigenous people, then the majority of Canadians are getting a negative image and that feeds into stereotypes and judgments and then this influences policy and public perceptions”, he concluded.

In terms of the way forward, Mr. Kinew highlighted the role of education.

He asserted that the main strategy is starting incorporating Indigenous culture and worldviews into the teaching at all levels of Canadian education. Moreover, Mr. Kinew agreed that it could benefit students as they look forward to their careers if they learn that there is other ways of looking at the world.

For the Indigenous community, Mr. Kinew argued that one of the roles of education has to do with capacity building so they can be successful in pursuing whatever career they find fulfilling. He also expressed that education could be a tool to build good institutions of governance and a good economic base for communities.

Having Mr. Kinew engaging with the Trent community was a privilege and his message of reconciliation and social justice was an inspiration for many of us lucky enough to have engaged with him.