Joshua Ostroff Headshot

Wab Kinew On Canadian Racism, Relocating Attawapiskat, And The 'Criminal' State Of Aboriginal Education

Posted: Updated:
HuffPost Canada
HuffPost Canada

"You can't deny the facts," says Wab Kinew, newly elected Manitoba NDP MLA, when asked about author Joseph Boyden calling Canada "absolutely a racist country" last fall.

"I carry a piece of identification in my wallet based on my ethnicity. Kids that grew up in a situation like I [did] get less money towards their education, less money towards family services that they need. They get a lower quality of healthcare than anyone else in this country based on who they are, based on their ethnicity," says the MLA for Fort Rouge.

"To me, that's racism. I don't think you could deny that our country has an issue with racism."

"But," he continues, "the thing you have to remember is that there are two different forms of racism. There's the overt name-calling in the street form of racism, which still exists but it's tempered. It's not what it was 50 years ago. But there's also systemic racism. There's a form of racism that discriminates against people in a much more subtle way.

"That is the sort of racism that Canada still has to deal with in large measure, particularly with indigenous communities."

Former rapper, journalist

Kinew has been an elected official for less than a month, but he's not new to public life. Born in the Onigaming First Nation in northwestern Ontario to a grand chief-turned-university professor father and a non-indigenous policy analyst mother, he was raised in Winnipeg where his parents moved for the educational opportunities.

After getting an economics degree, Kinew started a career as a rapper and then a journalist, hosting the CBC series "8th Fire." He later worked for Al Jazeera America — where he famously confronted Donald Rumsfeld — and for the University of Winnipeg, where he was the associate vice-president for indigenous relations until getting elected on April 19.

wab kinew

Kinew also wrote a bestselling memoir, "The Reason You Walk," in which he apologized for using misogynistic and homophobic language in his past. It's an issue that came up again during the recent campaign.

Kinew was in Toronto to speak at a series hosted by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business on indigenous education. But before taking the stage, he sat down with The Huffington Post Canada to discuss various hot topics, including calls to relocate people from remote First Nations, the suicide crisis gripping Attawapiskat, and the systemic racism behind indigenous students receiving $4,000 less per pupil in annual funding than every other Canadian kid.

first nations education

How old were you when you moved to Winnipeg?

Probably about four or five. I went to school on the reserve a couple times but pretty limited. The main reason my family moved to the city was so that I could get a good education, better than what was on offer on the reserve.

My family has been impacted by the inequity in funding for First Nations education; in my case, it was positive because it forced my family to move to pursue opportunity. Ideally, indigenous kids wouldn't have to move in order to get the same chance at life that everyone else in this country does. So there is still some work to be done. But in terms of my own life, I've been very fortunate.

What's your response to people like former Prime Minister Jean Chretien saying the people living in communities like Attawapiskat should leave and go to the city?

I think his remarks may have been taken out of context a little bit, but there are a lot of people in Canada who do think the indigenous people in Canada should relocate but it's silly. We pride ourselves on being a nation with a charter of rights and freedoms which guarantees that everyone in this country, no matter where they live, should have comparable quality of services, including education.

Why are we depriving kids in First Nations and in remote communities of getting a fair shot at life? The reality is some people are going to leave so we need to equip them so they are able to compete if they do come to the south, or if they move to another part of the country.

attawapiskatGirls walk on a street in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario on April 14, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

There's also going to be a lot of people who want to stay in the place where they grew up so why shouldn't they have the freedom to have a good, fulfilling, strong quality of life in the place where they were born? To me that seems in fitting with Canadian values of fairness and freedom, and being part of the great expanse of land that makes up our country.

Why are we chasing people out of the parts of the country that we put in our travel brochures? It makes no sense to me.

I think we need more compassion, more understanding and more empathy when it comes to understanding the challenges around life on reserve. We shouldn't be sitting around asking, "Why don't people leave the place they were born,"; we should be sitting around and asking, "Why does the government of Canada give $4,000 less per student per year to First Nation schools?"

wab kinew aboriginal advocate

How is it possible in this day and age that aboriginal kids get so much less per student?

I think it's a crime of omission. It's a situation where often the indigenous reality is far from view from the big population centers like Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal. By crime of omission I mean, I don't think there is a bureaucrat waking up today in Ottawa thinking, "How can we institute systemic racism against First Nations kids?"

At least I hope there isn't.

We arrived at this point because we are stuck with racist policies that were enacted in some cases 140 years ago and in some cases longer ago. So it is incumbent upon us as a people, who are here today, to change those things.

There is no justification for a kid on reserve getting less money for their education in a public school then a kid in a provincial school. There is no rationale that you could come up with that would satisfy your basic morality or your sense of fairness. So it's up to us to fix those things.

first nations girlsPortrait of a First Nation girl on Vancouver Island. (Photo: Getty)

That's part of it, we're grandfathered into some of the systems. But we ought to be spurred to act.

The scope of the challenge that we're talking about is in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year, right? Yet we find billions of dollars a year in this country for priorities, whether it's supporting manufacturing or innovation or post-secondary education. These are all great, absolutely they are, but it seems to me that in a country that can quickly deploy billions of dollars to meet the challenges of our time, but we should be able to find $300-$500 million to rectify one of the longest lasting systemic inequalities that exists in our country.

Let's not waste another generation of kids who are deprived of a high-quality education because we're sitting around a government table saying, "Oh, it's your guys' responsibility!" "No, it's your guys' responsibility!"

Meanwhile, these kids are suffering.

Q&A continues after slideshow:

Aboriginal Concerns In Canada
Share this
Current Slide

You mentioned bureaucrats, what excuse do politicians have?

You should go ask the current federal government because they have not rectified the funding inequity in the current budget that they tabled. They have earmarked some additional money, but they haven't earmarked everything that would be necessary to rectify the situation

Aside from raising money, what specifically needs to be done to bring aboriginal education up to an acceptable level?

Government has a big role to play, but again only part of the role. It definitely needs to commit all the resources necessary to ensure that First Nations education is equally funded. That's a no-brainer. Beyond that we need teachers unions to be partners in making sure there are good quality educators on board [and] there's probably room for NGOs to get involved, people like One Laptop Per Child Canada.

And I think that in the indigenous community we also have a social, cultural change that needs to take place in that we need to celebrate our academic achievers and kids to do well in math and science the same way we celebrate kids who are good at hockey. That's probably true of everyone in Canadian society. But it's especially urgent in the indigenous community given the fact that the greatest transformative change you can make for a family in poverty is to have somebody in that family get a professional degree, like a medical degree or a law degree. That will lift the whole family out of poverty.

Right now, there's a suicide crisis in Attawapiskat but also all over. I wrote a story in February about a 10-year-old who committed suicide in Bearskin Lake in northern Ontario. How can improving education help address this?

In a few ways. Suicide is a multifaceted challenge and you're going to need a whole host of interventions to be able to meet that challenge. You're going to need mental health services [and] better access to overall health. You're going to need education, you're going to need economic opportunity, you're going to need re-connection with culture and identity.

And you're going to need hope for young people, an intangible thing like hope.

So education as a part of that overall response, and there's also specific things that can be done within education to better equip kids to meet the challenges of their surroundings.

attawapiskatAn indigenous person visits the cemetery in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont. on April 19, 2016. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Teaching inclusivity around the LGBTTQ community is very important in First Nations. I visited one community in northern Manitoba which is very acutely affected by suicide and many of the young people who are successful at taking their own life were LGBT youth. One was a trans youth.

If they're not getting the support and welcome they need from their community than perhaps school is a place where we can reach them and make them know that they are loved and valued.

I think there's also a role for incorporating indigenous culture and respect for indigenous culture into education. We know from academic research that indigenous culture, indigenous language and indigenous self-determination are barriers against suicide. So that should really guide our approach.

Follow The Huffington Post Canada on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.