Identity

Why are male voices dominating the Boyden discussion?

Women’s voices need to be a bigger part of the conversation about what it means to be Indigenous
Photo: Nina Charest

The last few weeks of media coverage of the Joseph Boyden controversy show that no matter how Indigenous communities want to direct discussions about community, we still suffer from male-dominated discourse, a symptom of patriarchy.

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Boyden, an award-winning author, broke a three-week silence last week after requesting an interview on CBC’s q with long-time friend Candy Palmater, This followed an investigative piece, written by APTN reporter Jorge Barrera, which challenged Boyden’s claims to identity. The following three weeks produced a wave of articles — largely dominated by a male discourse — from various news outlets. Where are women’s voices in this very public and national discourse on Indigenous nationhood?

Men’s voices dominate

In most cases, men dominated more than one platform in discussing the issue of what Indigenous communities look like and the vague identity claims put forward by Boyden over many years.

It is not my intention, or my job, to weed through these pieces and pick out valuable and erroneous points. I simply want to draw attention to the primacy of men’s voices in this discourse, both in the Indigenous community and outside of it.

Men’s voices overtake the discussion • Wab Kinew, an author and NDP MLA in Fort Rouge, MB, claimed there is “space for everyone in our circle,” including Boyden, in a piece in the Globe and Mail, then sat on a panel for CBC’s The Current. • Jon Kay, editor of The Walrus, questioned why Boyden’s identity was being interrogated, then later dominated a panel on CBC’s The National. • Konrad Yakabuski’s piece (which frankly should be a weighty embarrassment to the Globe and Mail), was originally given the headline “Joseph Boyden’s lynching should set off alarm bells.” Sit down, Yakabuski. Sit way, way in the back, too. • Ryan McMahon, a comedian and media maker, wrote a personal reflection in Vice, was a guest on CANADALAND’s podcast, and also appeared on a panel on CBC’s The National. • Robert Jago, a political blogger and a primary voice in breaking the story on Boyden’s identity, hosted IndigenousXca’s Twitter page the week APTN’s piece was launched, following up his claims with a piece on CANADALAND and then The Walrus.

Acknowledging who is in the room

Complaints over the male-heavy discourse didn’t fall on deaf ears. Ryan McMahon quickly caught onto the trend.

Although McMahon made note of the inability to address, or lack of interest in, representation, it's ultimately up to the mainstream media to decide who they will and will not give platforms.

Representation, and who gets to speak publicly, needs to be considered in discussions of community. In Boyden’s interview on q, he stated again and again that he needs to listen. Perhaps it would be better for him to tell media heavy hitters, such as the Globe and Mail, that listening to Indigenous women and two-spirited people is crucial to representing the Indigenous community.

None of this is to ignore the powerful voices of women on this matter, as few mainstream pieces as there may have been. But were the women’s perspectives as well amplified as the men’s?

Wrist slap for public discourse

One of the many critiques that have come from both Indigenous and settler communities concerns the public nature of the debate. In reality, many folks, largely Indigenous, have discussed the identity claims made by Boyden in small circles for years. Small circles eventually become big ones, even national ones, involving many leading voices, some occupying more space than others. With social media prevalent in our daily lives, these circles grow rapidly.

Perhaps the most compelling, honest, and raw discussions are happening without help from the media kingpins. I have spent more time on Twitter these past few weeks than ever before. I am in awe of the fierceness of Indigenous women online. These women may not appear in the headlines, but their 140 characters or less have more bang for the buck.

Women-led discussions

Take, for example, Dawn Marie, who tweeted about the troubles women face when coming forward: “There is always a price when an Indigenous woman speaks up… always. I can say what I want but Twitter don’t pay the bills. #DejaVu.” Zoe Todd tweeted “I will share this one more time—don’t forget Boyden-as-spokesperson is entangled in patriarchy + old boys club.” Todd’s blog explores what the Boyden incident means in regards to patriarchy and settler colonialism, while she inserts “a Métis feminist perspective into discourses of where we go from here”. RedIndianGirl called out men’s voices when she tweeted, “Dude bros protecting Dude bros. Indigenous women see you.”

Women’s voices in mainstream media • Professor and academic Kim Tallbear and author Lee Maracle appeared alongside Kinew on CBC’s The Current. • Amil Niazi, an editor of Vice Canada, held a spot at the table as a panelist on CBC’s The National. • Globe and Mail contributor Denise Balkissoon offered a personal reflection on the importance of identity through a multicultural lens. • Terese Marie Mailhot took to the Huffington Post to explain the consequences of “selling Indian.”

Why are women actively contributing to the conversation on Twitter instead of in the public media spaces men have been dominating? Are women being shut out of mainstream media? Or is it a question of mainstream media displaying preference for the voices of men? That’s an easy and blatant answer: yes. A more appropriate question would be do women prefer their own online spaces and forums as opposed to mainstream media?

Backlash is always a risk

Chelsea Vowel, an active commentator on Twitter using the handle @apihtawikosisan, offered me her thoughts on the issue. More or less, it comes down to backlash. “I have said no to all media requests, and I know other women have, too,” said Vowel. She cited women’s avoidance of interviews as a significant factor in why men’s voices have dominated the Boyden story. “I felt that I faced too much potential backlash as a woman, compared to the men speaking, and that’s been echoed by other women who didn’t want to go on record.”

Perhaps it’s the sense of community on Twitter. Online, strong women are following, favouriting, and retweeting other strong women. Maybe it’s the feeling of control over what is shared, who can contribute, and who can be muted. It could very well be that women don’t demand an audience, and instead earn it.

Twitter can be a supportive space, but it certainly isn’t a “cushy-interview-with-a-longtime-friend” safe space. To become a go-to voice on Twitter is a respectable feat.

And that’s why, from now on, I’ll resort to Twitter first — and mainstream media second — when it comes to a collective discussion on what it means when we say community.

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