Joseph Boyden's first interview since an investigative journalist called his heritage claims into question is a good first step — but the beleaguered author still has a long way to go if he wants to be accepted again by the Indigenous communities he wrote about, said Wab Kinew.
An Anishinaabe author and NDP member of the Manitoba Legislature, Kinew said Boyden didn't do enough to clarify his background in an exclusive interview with CBC host, and friend, Candy Palmater.
In the interview, Boyden told Palmater he's "a white kid from Willowdale (a Toronto neighbourhood) with Native roots" — roots that are Nipmuc on his father's side, Anishinaabe on his mother's side.
But he also maintained that his claims to Indigenous ancestry are based largely on stories he was told by his family growing up, and not necessarily on official documentation. That's not specific enough for many Indigenous people, whose identities are often tied closely with nations, specific communities or families.
"It's a start," Kinew said. "But in order for people to welcome him or feel comfortable with him, he's got to answer some of these questions."
Boyden 'trying to divert'
Boyden did say he would defer to people with deeper roots in Indigenous communities when the time came to speak about Indigenous issues.
It's a move welcomed by Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie, a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba.
"I'm sure the community is going to forgive him but now that he's been humbled by the community, you have to know what your role is," she said.
"And that's behind First Nations, being a supporter, not white-splaining and being a spokesperson."
Still, Lavoie still doesn't believe Boyden has any Indigenous ancestry at all and accuses him of using the CBC interview to sway the discussion away from his identity.
"You're trying to divert this away from you actually accepting the fact that you don't really have Native roots."
"I think him pulling back as spokesperson for the Indigenous community is the right call, but I also don't think he really had a choice," said Indigenous author Jordan Wheeler, who's also not sure about Boyden's connection to the communities he writes about.
- OPINION: Who gets to speak?
"I don't think he knows for sure, or if he does he's not saying … so the questions remain unanswered."
Despite the controversy, Wheeler believes Boyden will continue to write about Indigenous people.
"It's lucrative for him … his books have sold well with his readers assuming he's part of the community," Wheeler said.
"Should he? No. But as a number of us writers discussed back in 1989, we can't stop people from writing what they want."
Kinew also believes Boyden will continue to write about Indigenous topics, though he believes readers will always view his work differently until this controversy dies down or is dealt with — a process he thinks could take years.
"Some people still want to give him the gears about some of his comments on colonization, or maybe talk to him about appropriation and I think he should be willing to have those conversations," Kinew said.
"I think that's part of what his path back is going to entail."
And if and when Boyden can prove to disbelievers that he is actually Indigenous, Wheeler — who has Ojibwa and Cree ancestry — thinks he should still be cautious about his writing topics.
"Even if he has Ojibwa blood, that doesn't mean he should be "mining" stories from Cree communities."