Champion dads

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair is Anishinaabe and originally from St. Peter’s (Little Peguis) near Selkirk, Manitoba. He is an award-winning writer, editor and activist whose written work has appeared in The Guardian, The Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press. He trains educators across Canada, having written curricula for organizations like the Assembly of First Nations. Currently an associate professor and formerly head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, Niigaan teaches courses in Indigenous literature, culture, history and politics. He and his first partner have a daughter, Sarah, born in 2006. Niigaan is the son of Senator Murray Sinclair, who was chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada from 2009 to 2015.

Words from Niigaan:

My father gave me a sense of spirit. When I was born, he began a journey into learning what it means to be an Anishinaabe and a man. He felt he didn’t know enough as a young father to be able to give much to a son, so he began to attend ceremonies at the Midewiwin lodge. He spent time with elders and learned teachings—and finally, introduced me to this life.

My father saw first-hand the impacts of violence and it’s been hard for him to talk about it. The result is we don’t talk about it much, and that’s okay. This silence, though, has led to other silences. The fact that my father went through such a hard time in his life and was still a great dad is amazing. One of the things he has done with me is always show me unconditional love, yet I still find I miss him.

Sarah was born when I was thirty, at the exact time I started my PhD. I was at home with her for the first six years of her life and really, she was my real PhD. In fact, I can’t remember what I was like as a human being before she arrived. Everything else I have done in life pales in comparison to being a father.

Now in my forties, I realize how imperfect I am. I don’t like talking about myself, especially about my fears of rejection that led to difficulty in relationships and other issues going all the way back to my grandfather. I’ve made lots of mistakes. I’m human, too. I don’t fault my family—or my grandfather—for anything. I am who I am because of him and I appreciate his incredible resilience. His childhood didn’t give him what he needed and that led to legacies of silence I now want to undo. Every day is a struggle—some struggles I win, some I lose.

Of course, the legacy of residential schools impacts the lives of Indigenous people in various ways, but every Canadian is affected by it. My grandfather wasn’t an alcoholic because he wanted to be; he was an alcoholic because he was physically and sexually abused as a young boy in residential school. He learned violence and brought that into his own life. People don’t ever choose to become alcoholics; they are self-medicating the pain they live with and endure. Not everyone chooses alcohol either—some people lose themselves in shopping, gambling, their career… whatever it takes to create numbness.

If my father hadn’t taken the journey of rejecting the violence my grandfather introduced into his life, and had not found our lodge and ceremonies, I’d be very lost. I don’t know where I would be—I think I would have become an alcoholic and a very angry person. Being Anishinaabe plays a central role in my life and in my identity. Being Indigenous is something Canadian society still rejects, demeans and ostracizes whether it be in parliament, movies or in the media. Things are changing, but too slowly.

Without the lodge, without those ceremonies and my beliefs, I would not be the father I am today. In our ceremonies we say, “Ni minwendam omaa ayaan,” which means “I am happy for all the things that have brought us together.” It means that everything that has brought me here—the good, the bad, the great, the ugly—has made me who I am, standing here right now. We shouldn’t run from those things, as they have all created us. And I am happy for all the things that have created those around me, too.

I am very proud of everything the lodge has made me. I have found answers to all of the questions I have ever asked about who I am, why I am here, who can help me and where I am going. I found meaning. For this, I thank my father.

Excerpted from “Forty Fathers: Men Talk About Parenting”, with permission from Douglas & McIntyre, 2022.

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