Wab Kinew: The Power and Politics of Language

by Alanna Brousseau

Published at 2015-10-07

On September 28, musician, academic, and activist Wab Kinew addressed a full house at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bluma Appel Salon. The event was part of the salon’s (free!) ongoing program in which “writers, thinkers, artists and innovators from around the world gather for conversation and debate.”

The CBC’s Carol Off interviewed Kinew about his new memoir, The Reason You Walk. He describes the book as navigating a son’s reconciliation with his father, and a father’s reconciliation with his experience as a residential school survivor.


The Intertwining Threads of Present and Past


The parallels between Kinew’s present and his father’s past are a reminder that, although some headway has been made in improving the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada, there is still a laborious journey ahead. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to call a national inquiry into the growing number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is a glaring example. This refusal demonstrates how far off any sort of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government really is.  


Along with sharing a particularly horrific incident involving the “disappearance” of his father’s friend at residential school, Kinew also shared a troubling experience of his own that transpired while he was working at the CBC. Kinew was working on a piece in which he wanted to use the term “residential school survivors” to describe those who survived the system, as his father did. However, Kinew’s superiors at the CBC refused to allow him to use the term and advised him to use “former students” instead. It wasn’t until Kinew threatened to resign that they acquiesced.


The Power of Language to Manipulate Interpretation


Consider the differences between the terms “residential school survivors” and “former students.” The former emphasizes a group’s struggle to overcome adversity, while the latter is completely devoid of any action or emotion. In context, “former students” is a lie by omission: it describes the group’s former status, but neglects to acknowledge what exactly that experience entailed. “Former students” is a neutral term—a safe term—whereas “residential school survivors” is emotionally and politically charged. Language has the power to manipulate perception and interpretation in subtle ways; it is important that we choose our words carefully.


The politics of “naming” has been a hotly contested topic of late. Consider the LGTBQ community advocating for a gender-neutral pronoun (the singular “they”); disability activists recommending terminology that removes emphasis from the condition and places it back on the person (“person living with HIV/AIDS” as opposed to “HIV/AIDS victim”); and Kinew struggling to define a particular group of Indigenous peoples using language that accurately describes their identity and experience.  


Group Identity Is Personal—and Political


Like “residential school survivors,” any label pertaining to a group’s identity should be autonymic. Meaning, only those who are members of a particular group possess the authority to determine the language used to define it. These labels are constantly in flux, and opinions among group members are often varied. After all, identity is individual.


Keeping abreast of the constantly evolving terms and definitions can seem daunting. However, as editor Sarah Grey emphasized in her Inclusive Language seminar, the most important thing to remember is to “respect each individual’s wishes regarding terminology and identification … such choices are highly personal and there are no rules set in stone.”