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Jesse Wente: storyteller and truth-seeker

By Daina Astwood-George • November 10, 2021Big Ideas

Follow The Reader is our series featuring unconventional leaders and trailblazers.

Jesse Wente, Anishinaabe father, author, broadcaster and arts leader is searching for truths. Born and raised in Toronto, and a member of the Serpent River First Nation, he has spent much of his life trying to better understand a history stolen from him by colonialism, and an identity muddled by the pulls of two worlds.

As Canada continues to take steps towards Indigenous reconciliation, Jesse can’t help but wonder if the nation really gets it. When you’re so focused on claiming progress, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re supposed to gain from the journey. He pointedly notes that “truth and reconciliation” has two components, and questions how we can possibly take meaningful steps towards reconciliation if the whole truth – with all of its intricacies and ugliness – has only started to come to light.

In our conversation, Jesse opens up about his new memoir and explores Canada’s history through his own story.

You have a new book, Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance. What is it about?

The book is about my life. It's my attempt to use my experiences to illuminate some of the thinking I've developed around the relationship between Canada and First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, and all of the complexities that entails. I use my own experiences, my own history and my family's history to examine what are often really large systemic issues. It's my attempt to personalize those. For whatever reason, I'm here now and have been given this work to do.

The book is also an offering to my children. I had some worries that if I didn't tell them this part of my story, I may not get the opportunity to, so I wanted to capture my thoughts. I'm hoping that, in the future, it's a book they can turn to to get a better understanding of who their dad was and what he was trying to do.

You’ve discussed personal identity in the past, and once commented that, “It makes [you] a little nervous to show so much [of yourself].” Has writing Unreconciled changed how you view your own identity in any way?

A lot of the book is my journey to understanding both my personal identity and belonging to a larger community that you sometimes feel apart from because of colonialism. It can be complex when you're from a community, but you didn't grow up there; when your community has a language, but you don't know it; when it has a shared culture, but you weren't brought up in it. All of those things can be hard, especially when I didn't really have a choice.

I'm a person in my late 40s and that's a long time to have to spend trying to figure this stuff out, which speaks to the complexity of it and all of the reflection it took. The reason I was able to write this book now is because I came to really understand that. Writing the book didn’t alter my view, rather, it has given me a better understanding.

"The book is also an offering to my children. I had some worries that if I didn't tell them this part of my story, I may not get the opportunity to, so I wanted to capture my thoughts."

How has the dichotomy you describe affected your life?

It makes it hard. I didn't have it as hard as some – my family always knew who they were – but we're not as connected as we would like. It's much different now than it was when I was a kid, but not so different that these issues aren't still very present; not so different that I don’t struggle with a sense of belonging.

I find Canada an interesting place. Here's this country that has renamed all of these things that have had names for thousands and thousands of years, yet it's this country that’s often searching for its own identity. I wonder why. Of course it doesn't know what it is.

And Canada doesn’t really know anything about First Nations people as an entity, and yet it has made all sorts of decisions about us and it does all sorts of things to us. I get the sense that many Canadians are also struggling to understand how the Canada they believed in could have done some of these things. That’s hard, but unfortunately that’s the “truth” part in “truth and reconciliation.” You begin to learn things that you didn't know, and a lot of those things you're not going to be comfortable knowing. But we have to sort it out.

You’ve also said that the notion of reconciliation isn’t a realistic path forward. Why do you think so many people have bought into it?

I would ask those people what their idea of reconciliation is, and if I had to guess, I suspect we'd get a lot of different answers. I think that speaks to part of the issue. I struggle with the notion of reconciliation that we've been presented with too. I don't quite know what it is in terms of the current framework.

Also, you can't move to reconciliation because the truth is still emerging. You can't just fast forward through it, and until the truth is both fully told and treated as essential to the process, we can’t talk about the next phase.

The next phase probably isn’t even reconciliation. I think there has to be an acknowledgement and an amends made first. If you think of your own personal relationships, if someone hurts you – like really hurts you – is them saying, “I'm sorry” meaningful without an actual attempt to make amends? So amends or restitution or reparations is something we really have to consider as a sign of a preparedness.

I don't even think this country has truly grappled with the fact that residential schools were just part of a large policy to eliminate Indigenous people, and that’s actually what we're trying to reconcile. Part of Canada’s pathway to being was the elimination of all First Nations. That we should now forget all of that and be able to move on is a tough thing to say.

The approach to reconciliation that we've ultimately seen has been more transactional or performative. It doesn't get to the fundamental issue, which is how do we make this country actually work while acknowledging that it wasn't an inclusive place? That’s still an aspirational goal, but it will be hard for Canada to ever achieve its aspirations without facing this fundamental truth about itself.

"There was a long time in Canadian history when we weren’t allowed to tell those stories, so for us, it's very important that they come back."

You’re also the co-executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office, which notes that Indigenous knowledge sharing and storytelling are more important now than ever. Why do you think that is?

It's important for our communities because this is all work we're trying to reclaim and restore and preserve to build ourselves back up. There was a long time in Canadian history when we weren’t allowed to tell those stories, so for us, it's very important that they come back.

Also, I think Canada might be at a place where it wants to hear them. What's interesting is that while we have certainly felt the absence of our stories from the mainstream for a long time, Canadians have finally figured out that it’s an absence they’ve felt as well...that they're missing out on something, that there's something more they should understand about the place they live and its history.

When it comes to screen content, you know as well as I do that people are watching more things on screens now than at any other time in human history. It’s an incredibly pervasive communication and storytelling space, so I think it's important that we're there as much as anywhere. The world is yearning for and needs these stories, and luckily there are a lot of storytellers here to tell them.

What can people do on a personal level to help build a new, respectful relationship between the nation of Canada and Indigenous peoples?

One key thing is to educate yourself as best you can. For many of us – certainly my generation and older – these probably were not things you were taught in school. Luckily there are tons of resources for people now. Also, making sure that you're always asking every electoral party – no matter who you are or what you vote for – to treat these like fundamental issues.

The other piece of advice I would give is to listen. As a man, I listened during the Me Too movement. I'm still listening. One of the many things I took away from that is if I'm in a space where there are only men, and things are said or done in that space that should not be said or done, part of my responsibility as an ally is to enforce that – or to at least make it clear that I won't be part of it and that I don't want it around me. I’m at a stage in my life where being the person that makes the room uncomfortable has sort of become what I do, and if I want change, that's just a small thing.

There's a way to do that around this issue too. Indigenous people are less than five per cent of the Canadian population, so there are a lot of spaces that we aren't in, but you are. My guess is that you've probably heard or seen things that you know aren't cool, and yes, I am asking you to do something. Over time, that’s how we’ll actually get systemic change. Politicians and all of the systems will adapt to that, but they won't adapt if we don't act.

What else can people read to learn more?

Certainly Katherena Vermette’s new book, The Strangers. Fantastic.

Also, Life In the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Muller is excellent.

21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act by Bob Joseph is a very readable primer on one of the most important laws that still exists in Canada that most Canadians don't even know about.

I mean pretty much anything by Eden Robinson or Drew Hayden Taylor or Richard Van Camp... I could go on and on.

And I know Kobo is a reading site, but people may want a quick movie too (laughs). Everyone should go see Night Raiders and Beans. Highly recommend. ◼

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente

Wente gives voice to the differences between Hollywood portrayals of Indigenous peoples and lived culture. Through the lens of art, pop culture, personal stories, and with disarming humour, he links his love of baseball and movies to such issues as cultural appropriation, Indigenous representation, identity, and Indigenous narrative sovereignty. He argues that storytelling in all its forms is one of Indigenous peoples' best weapons in the fight to reclaim their rightful place.

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