Thursday January 05, 2017

Indigenous identity and the case of Joseph Boyden

Questions about who has the right to speak for the Indigenous community stir in the wake of the  Joseph Boyden controversy.

Questions about who has the right to speak for the Indigenous community stir in the wake of the Joseph Boyden controversy. (Penguin Random House Canada)

Listen 27:28

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A report by the Aboriginal People's Television Network concluded that Joseph Boyden — long celebrated as one of Canada's finest Indigenous voices — may not be Indigenous at all.

It found that over the years the writer has described his Indigenous ancestry in a plethora of ways, raising suspicion among many. 

The discussion that followed has given rise to many more questions concerning the nature of Indigenous identity, and the nature of identity itself.

'I once said that, "A small part of me is Indigenous, but it is a huge part of who I am." This remains true to me to this day ... ' - Excerpt of a tweet from Boyden in response to the APTN report

Boyden's response

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Joseph Boyden holds the Giller Prize after winning it in Toronto on Nov. 11, 2008. Boyden won the prize for his book Through Black Spruce. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

In a response to the APTN report, Boyden did reaffirm his Indigenous roots on both his mother and father's side in a statement on his Twitter account.

Here's an excerpt from that tweet.

In an article written about me, I once said that, "A small part of me is Indigenous, but it is a huge part of who I am." This remains true to me to this day, and I have never spoken of myself in different terms than that. Anyone who knows me knows this. I've learned from my elders, teachers, and healers to speak my truth and speak from my heart with respect, humility, and love.

'I think there's a lot of legitimate questions' 

The Current invited Boyden for an interview, but he declined. 

Wab Kinew, author and NDP member of the Manitoba legislature, tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti the APTN report raises a number of questions.

"I think there's a lot of legitimate questions ... how appropriate was it for him to accept award money or grants that were set aside for Indigenous authors ... writers who had the very real experience of facing obstacles based on being born a First Nations person or Inuit person in Canada."

'They would probably pick up a copy of Wenjack and look at it differently if they think he's non-Native versus when they assumed he was Indigenous.' - Wab Kinew on the question of race and identity

'We're still discovering who we are' 

Proof of background doesn't matter to Lee Maracle, author and instructor at the University of Toronto

"We're still discovering who we are. We don't actually know because Canada has completely set us in disarray through ... residential schools, through dislocation and relocation."

All these colonial programs, says Maracle, has left very little in terms of understanding Indigenous roots and very little ability to trace it back.  

Kinew says the way a reader approaches a Joseph Boyden novel is influenced by how they understand his identity.

"They would probably pick up a copy of Wenjack [Boyden's novella about 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack] and look at it differently if they think he's non-Native versus when they assumed he was Indigenous."

Listen to the full discussion (along with panellist Kim TallBear, Canada research chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience & Environment at the University of Alberta) at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by Network Producer's Anne Penman and Suzanne Dufresne.