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Leading Through Relationship: Indigenous Leadership and Wab Kinew

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

This week’s post explores the exciting election of Wab Kinew as Premier of Manitoba through the lens of Western and Indigenous Leadership Theories. Tracing parts of Kinew’s journey shows the significance of this new political leadership.

To caution readers, this post references a survivor's residential school experience, however it does so without details of specific instances or types of abuse.

Artwork by Olive Bensler.

Leading Through Relationship: Indigenous Leadership and Wab Kinew

A familiar sound on a crisp fall day in Edmonton is the unmistakable symphony of honking Canadian geese. Geese moving South marks the coming of warm fires and hot cocoa on cold nights. Beyond signalling a change in seasons, the v-shaped flight patterns are living stories of leadership that defy Western conventions. This is the lead-goose paradigm in action - a story of leadership as collaboration and a symbol of Indigenous Leadership Theory (ILT).[1]

Leadership theory is dominated by models which attempt to imagine how people can approach relationships with a larger group to achieve an outcome.[2] Yet, amid Western accounts of leadership models, there is a glaring absence of Indigenous perspectives.

Leadership is fundamentally about relationships.[2] Angela Bunner summarised this simply: “[Leadership] depends on who you are, where you are, what you do, and how you do it.”[1] Yet the gap in Western leadership theory is highlighted when we ask, “Who and what are we excluding from these relationships?”

Indigenous legal scholars are at the forefront of this inquiry.[1,2] They challenge colonial leadership models that neglect leaders who owe obligations under pre-existing legal orders; obligations to past and future generations, to the land and more than human kin, and to themselves and the embodiment of their traditional values.

Colonial perspectives paint leaders as a kind of “protagonist” who chooses a goal and gets other people to join in achieving it.[1] Belasco and Stayer described this leadership style as a herd of buffalo.[4] Buffalos have loyalty and faith in their leader. They will follow the direction and patterns of their behaviour even if it might lead to harm.

The Lead-Goose Paradigm

ILT presents leadership as focused on the community and place. As a result, they are often highly collaborative. For example, the lead-goose leadership paradigm is defined by the rotating role of geese leading to V-formation.[4] In this model, no individual remains in complete charge of direction. Instead, successful migration depends on collective wisdom and shared responsibility.

In part, the selection of the lead-goose is dependent on physical strength.[1] The lead goose takes the brunt of the wind and thus fatigues and must eventually be replaced to sustain its energy.

The lead-goose is also selected based on skill.[4] Some geese are naturally gifted in finding a safe place to rest, while others may have a strong sense of direction to lead them south. As the geese migrate, the leader rotates as the needs of the flock change.

Similarly, societies require the strengths and skills of different leaders to face new challenges. Through this lens, we can appreciate the value of Wab Kinew’s election as Canada’s first First Nations Premier.

Wab Kinew’s Journey to Leadership

While much attention has been given to Wab Kinew's political career, there has been little focus on how his unique strengths align with Canada’s need for a leader who can rebuild fractured relationships.

Wab Kinew's journey is a remarkable story of resilience and transformation.[6] Despite facing addiction, legal challenges, and personal struggles rooted in intergenerational trauma and systemic racism, Kinew has consistently demonstrated exceptional humility and forgiveness.

One striking example of his commitment to reconciliation is his leadership in the adoption ceremony of Catholic Archbishop James Weisberger through nabagoondewin.[6] Nabagoondewin is an Anishinaabe ceremony designed to bring people together as one family, fostering peace and relationship repair in the face of pain and conflict.

Nabagoondewin is a ceremony that can unite people as one family by committing them to set aside differences, make peace, and repair relationships.[6] This practice offers a way to move forward from pain, trauma, or conflict.

Tobasonakwut Kinew, Wab Kinew's father, is a residential school survivor who endured life-altering traumas when an Archbishop in a black robe forcibly separated him from his family and community. In 2009, Tobasonakwut shared his story, coincidentally the same year his grandson reached the age at which he was taken from his family.

In early 2012, Tobasonakwut approached Kinew with the request to lead a nabagoondewin ceremony to adopt the Archbishop. Despite initial concerns about the ceremony's potential impact given the profound harm caused by residential schools, Kinew trusted in his father's wisdom and the power of the traditional practice.

On the day of the ceremony, Archbishop Weisberger donned the same traditional Roman Catholic robe worn by the Archbishop who had taken Tobasonakwut from his home. Yet, as the ceremony progressed, Kinew and the grand chief draped a bright star quilt around his shoulders and presented him with two eagle feathers.

Image Source: On a rare occasion where photos were permitted during nabagoondewin, Mike Deal captured Tobasonakut Kinew, his brothers, and Archbishop James Weisberger. Mike Deal Winnipeg Free Press.

The Archbishop, once an outsider, emerged from the ceremony spiritually and physically transformed into family. On the significance of this adoption, Kinew said, "On that day, the Creator spoke to us all, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, and reminded us of the reasons we walk."[6]

Through his experiences, Kinew became a strong leader who understands the importance of healing and reconciliation. These strengths challenge colonial leadership paradigms. Wab Kinew’s journey has gifted him the skills to fly Canada in a different direction.

The ReconciliACTIONyeg team.


[1] Citing various chapters in Robin Minthorn & Alicia Fedelina Chavez, eds, Indigenous Leadership in Higher Education 1st ed (New York, 2015).

[2] Tina Ngaroimata Fraser & Carolyn Bereznak Kenny, Living indigenous leadership: native narratives on building strong communities (UBC Press, 2012).

[3] Peter Northouse, Leadership Theory and Practice 9th ed (Canada, 2022).

[4] James Belasco & Ralph Stayer, Flight of the Buffalo: soaring to excellence, learning to let employees lead, (New York, 1993).

[5] Ian Froesce “Raising Wab Kinew’s troubled past makes sense, but still fraught with peril, political experts say” (October, 2023), online: CBC News

[6] Wab Kinew, The reason you walk, a memoir (England, 2015).

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