Joseph Boyden is one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary authors. Claiming Nipmuc and Ojibwe ancestry, he has been called a “shining bridge” on the country’s path to reconciliation. A 2008 Giller Prize has assured him a place in the Canadian literary canon, while a 2016 Indspire award, granted for achievements made by Indigenous individuals, has helped cement his position as a spokesperson for Indigenous issues.
The recent APTN investigation by Jorge Barrera into Boyden’s genealogy, which found no proof of Indigenous ancestry, has raised issues around Canadian collective identity and racism, provoking an epic social media storm. Outside commentators, especially those working in mainstream media, have failed to understand what’s at stake.
Credibility and Indigeneity
“It would be a tragedy if the reconciliation all Canadians seek with First Nations were allowed to be hijacked by the kind of identity politics, and its reactionary counterpart, that have overtaken other Western democracies. Mr. Boyden’s lynching should set off alarm bells in this regard,” wrote Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe and Mail.
But Boyden has not been lynched, and certainly not by what Yakabuski called an “angry mob of identity politics,” nor has Canadian reconciliation been hijacked. It’s actually quite the opposite: a writer seems to have hijacked Indigenous identity and become internationally known for representing it.
The problem is not so much identity politics as it is Boyden’s exaggeration or falsity about his Indigenous heritage. At a literary panel in April 2016 attended by one of the authors of this piece, Boyden said that his mother’s language is Ojibwe. Yet the APTN article quotes Blanche Boyden, his mother, as saying she doesn’t know much about the family’s Indigenous identity.
For many Indigenous people, the question isn’t whether a drop of Native blood can be found in Boyden’s ancestry.
“Nobody cares about [Boyden’s] blood quantum,” wrote Audra Simpson, a Kahnawake Mohawk anthropologist working at Columbia University, in a Facebook post. “It is not shameful to ask who you belong to. It is not ‘lateral violence’ or a lynch mob to ask who your relations are. It is the beginning of a conversation that unlocks who you are and how you shall proceed with each other. The crucial questions are who are his people, where is the land that claims him, and who claims him as kin? And the answer is ‘(settler) Canada.’”
In this unprecedented era of communications, Indigenous people have the social media savvy to conduct a public and rather civil conversation around what it means to be Indigenous versus what it means to self-identify as Indigenous. However embarrassing the appropriation of an Indigenous identity is for Boyden (or Canada), reconciliation must have more meaning than just an airing of dirty little secrets. Reconciliation is about dealing with issues in ways that are respectful, especially of Indigenous perspectives. The central issue of this dialogue is otherness, from many viewpoints, and this should include a critical reading of Boyden’s novels.
Self-identification and damage
Marginalized voices have long been denied spaces in the mainstream. We see this everywhere: in news reporting, in film and TV and even in arts and culture.
Expressions of lived experiences by marginalized people are valuable. In Canada, they are necessary for achieving reconciliation. If Indigenous peoples’ experiences are the launching pad for reconciliation, who gets to describe what that looks like?
Self-identification as Indigenous can lead to personal gain, but it does not justify fabricating a connection. Boyden has misled people about his roots while receiving privileges and awards meant for Indigenous writers, not just writers who tell Indigenous stories. Grants, awards, and projects for reconciliation are unevenly distributed when more prominent and powerful voices, such as Boyden’s, drown out others.
As Rebeka Tabobondung, an editor for Muskrat Magazine and member of Wasauksing First Nation, stated in an interview with CBC’s Helen Mann, Boyden “has profited in the sense that his public profile has very much increased. And then there have been all kinds of financial gains that he has profited clearly from as well.” And easily the most troubling to the Indigenous arts community in particular is that “in terms of arts funding, he's received a lot of that.”
Boyden has also taken up space beyond Indigenous arts, including on some of the key political questions facing Canada and Indigenous nations. He was appointed as an honourary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a role he accepted. That kind of appointment, to a person who does not have a connection, beyond an empathic one, to any Indigenous community denies the real people who have suffered from Canada’s assimilationist policies. To take up space as a contributing voice to the Indigenous struggle obstructs the authentic resiliency of Indigenous people.
Though Boyden said in a Twitter post that he does belong in the Indigenous community, that does not give him the right to claim Indigeneity.
Criticism from Indigenous women
At the same time Boyden has been taking up Indigenous spaces, he has been alienating many Indigenous women.
Earlier this year, he spearheaded an open letter to the University of British Columbia in defence of fellow writer Steven Galloway following accusations of sexual assault. According to the signatories, representing many of the most elite names in Canadian literature and the arts, due process had been overlooked. The letter neglected sensitivity towards women who come forward with complaints. It discourages women from coming forward against acts of patriarchy and sexual assault.
Responses to the letter raised the issue of patriarchy as well as the dynamics of white privilege. Margaret Atwood issued a tweet implying that Galloway couldn’t be benefitting from white privilege because he was known to be Indigenous and adopted, information she said she had received from Boyden.
Boyden’s role in spearheading the letter struck a chord with many Indigenous women, including Métis assistant professor of anthropology Zoe S.C. Todd.
“A lot of indigenous women in the academy face so much misogyny and racism day to day,” stated Todd In an interview with Quill & Quire. “It’s disheartening for young scholars to see someone prominent who we really look up to for the stance he takes on a lot of indigenous issues to be reiterating a lot of the stereotypes and harmful re-stigmatizing attitudes that do so much harm. I’m actually quite heartbroken over the role that he’s taken in this.”
"Joseph Boyden has written extensively about his solidarity with indigenous women on issues of missing and murdered indigenous women, two spirit people, and girls. And his role in spearheading this letter and not tending to those nuances of experiences of sexual violence that many women experience inside of and outside of the academy really troubles me."
The struggle for Indigenous nationhood
Boyden’s body of work — including fiction, articles and commentary — is rooted in the trauma and struggle of Indigenous people. By means of his elite profile, many non-Indigenous Canadians view his contributions as a historical and authentic glimpse into what it means to be Indigenous. But when his alleged Indigeneity is proven to be false, that means so too are the experiences he has so often represented to the public.
Through mass murders, starvation methods, residential schooling, ’60s scoops, foster care systems and plain old assimilation, locating Indigenous identity can be a disheartening struggle. This can be seen in the triggering effects that the debate about Boyden’s identity has caused for those who have struggled and those who continue to struggle to uncover their Indigenous ancestry and communities.
The process of reconciliation takes resiliency and care. To jump the line of colonialism and its effects is to dismiss the struggle for Indigenous nationhood, both past and present.