Described as one of the “top Aboriginal movers and shakers in Canada,” Wab Kinew lived up to the billing through an emotional and inspiring speech given Oct. 16 as part of StFX’s annual Leaders Summit.
The keynote speech, titled Putting the People First: Indigenous Perspectives on Leadership, took place at the Schwartz School of Business auditorium.
“In our community it’s not about standing on stage in the spotlight, it’s not about the big paycheck, the title … being a leader, in the true traditional Indigenous sense of the word, it’s about service,” Kinew said in his speech. “It’s about serving your people … all those other people who are counting on you.”
A university leader at the University of Winnipeg, journalist, broadcaster, hip-hop artist and author, his book The Reason You Walk was just released last month, the 33-year-old Kinew talked about famous Aboriginal folks making their mark in Canada, such as hockey player Carey Price, artist Tanya Tagaq and novelist Joseph Boyden.
“And I believe fully, in my lifetime, probably in the next decade, we’ll have our first Indigenous Prime Minister of this country,” he said to large applause from the audience.
“So it’s an amazing time but we need to get past the firsts. I’m not interested in being the first anything … my attitude, my mentality is, I’m trying to be the best. So I’m not trying to be the first novelist, I want to be the best writer, not the first politician from my community, the best leader from my community.”
And after pointing out successes, Kinew countered that with the challenges still being faced by Aboriginal people in Canada.
“There is a huge disconnect between the potential that’s being realized,” he said.
“The fact that every young Indigenous person who goes out there and grabs a piece of success is adding another nail in the coffin of the racists’ attitudes of the past and showing they were mistaken because the thing that prevented us from achieving was never anything to do with our genetics but merely an accident of the racists’ policies of the past which held us back. At the same time, while that is being proven by every young Indigenous person, we also have to face the facts there are extreme inequities that persist in this country and continue to persist in this land we love so much.
“I know the values of this country, what this country dreams for itself and what it’s capable of being, what I’m saying is, let’s live up to those values. Let’s be honest about the truth of our situation today and commit to working together to respond to those things and then move from truth onto reconciliation.”
In talking about what he prepared for his speech, Kinew noted he drew on his observations of First Nation leaders including his father Tobasonakwut, a former Coady International Institute participant, who passed away in 2012.
“My father was a big influence,” he said. “He was a First Nations’ politician, first regional Chief of Ontario, but there are a lot of people in the cultural community I was influenced by too, Sundance Chiefs like Leonard Crow Dog – spiritual leaders. I was lucky enough to grow up in a traditional area, traditional household, so I had the benefit of seeing more traditional First Nation leaders.”
Kinew talked about elders in First Nation communities recognizing prospective leaders and helping them realize their potential.
“Elders in our communities are very intentional about cultivating leaders,” he said. “They identify certain people and mold them, tell them certain ideals they should live up to and, when you’re a young man like me who strays from the good path, they jerk the chain, yank you back and say, ‘hey, this is what you’re supposed to be doing, this is what life is about, this is how to be a good person.’”
Asked about his diverse experiences and skills, Kinew humbly pointed out he has been fortunate to be given the opportunities to explore them.
“I’ve been trying to pursue each of those to the fullest because I am very thankful, feel very lucky to have those opportunities,” he said.
“I’ve been trying to make the most of them and, hopefully, along the way I can give back and share with young people some of the insights and wisdom I’ve picked up from the older generation.”
And what insight and wisdom would he share now with Aboriginal youth?
“I want them to know anything is possible,” he said.
“Through hard work, education and treating people with respect, they can achieve anything they want to.
“I guess, related to that, I hope people would understand that in addition to being professionally successful or having financial success, the most important thing is to still be a good person, to still have a strong moral, ethical campus you live up to.
“If you do, I think the other comes naturally.”