Arts·Point of View

Why non-Indigenous support for Joseph Boyden should set off alarm bells

Until the Boyden controversy started, Indigenous writer Alicia Elliott never thought she'd see white men arguing against Canada's colonial definition of "Indian."

'This is not about blood quantum — this is about who is allowed to speak for Native peoples'

Author Joseph Boyden discusses the controversy around his heritage with CBC host Candy Palmater. (CBC)

I must admit, until the Joseph Boyden controversy started, I never thought I'd see white men in national newspapers arguing against Canada's colonial definition of "Indian." I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. After all, there is a uniquely Canadian history of rewarding "good Indians" and punishing "bad Indians."

In case you missed the controversy the first time around, here's a primer. Joseph Boyden is a literary heavyweight whose books and claims to Indigeneity have made him, in his own words, the "go-to person" on Indigenous issues. The problem is Boyden has recently come under fire for not being Indigenous at all. In an incredible show of investigative journalism, Jorge Barrera has gone over all of Boyden's various claims to Indigeneity and found nothing conclusive. At last count, Boyden has claimed to be Métis, Nipmuc, Mi'kmaq, Anishinaabe, Moose Cree First Nation and perhaps most ludicrously of all, two-spirited. He has yet to provide proof to back up any of these claims.

Of course, that hasn't stopped white male columnists from jumping into the conversation. Jonathan Kay has argued for Boyden's Indigeneity by pointing out how unlikely it is that, in 400 years, "there wasn't a drop of Indigenous blood introduced into [...] Boyden's bloodline." Meanwhile, Konrad Yakabuski has suggested Boyden's "only sin was showing too much enthusiasm for a Native heritage he may or may not have exaggerated."

Let's be honest. This is not about blood quantum — not really. This is about who is allowed to speak for Native peoples.- Alicia Elliott

Both men have been adamant that measuring Boyden's Indigenous identity by blood is "never an entirely benign exercise" and akin to "lynching." Yet, neither man mentions that blood quantum — a method of measuring blood percentages to determine how "Indian" you are — was introduced by Canada under the Indian Act, one of the many measures to systematically eliminate and/or control Indigenous people. Maybe they forgot. After all, the Indian Act uses tricky terminology like "degree of Indian parentage" and "genealogical connection." These men also seem to have forgotten to mention the ramifications of blood quantum as official Indian policy still reverberate in our communities today, affecting more than just award-winning novelists.

So why do these columnists and so many other non-Indigenous people care about blood quantum in Boyden's case, but not in any other Indigenous person's case? Why aren't they lobbying for non-status Indians to finally be recognized by the Canadian government? Why aren't they supporting those Indigenous people cut from their nations by the Sixties Scoop, who legitimately have no clue who they are because of racist Canadian policy?

Let's be honest. This is not about blood quantum — not really. This is about who is allowed to speak for Native peoples. Remember what I said about rewarding "good Indians" and punishing "bad Indians"?

Joseph Boyden (CBC)

Let me tell you a story about a man named Levi General. He was a Cayuga Chief honoured with the title of "Deskaheh" by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council (HCC) in 1917. Like many Indigenous people, Deskaheh wasn't too fond of the Canadian government and its knack for systematically destroying Indigenous sovereignty and lives. In 1923, the HCC sent Deskaheh and lawyer George P. Decker to Geneva to lobby the League of Nations for my peoples' right to be recognized as an independent state under article 17 of the League's covenant.

Predictably, Canada did not like this, and in 1924 they retaliated. Canada passed a royal proclamation dissolving the HCC, after which the RCMP raided the Six Nations again, barred chiefs from the council house, stole wampum and important documents and then immediately called for a band council election. This new "democratic" band council was voted in with 56 ballots. There was no question of these new councillors' blood quantum. But these councillors were "good Indians" — and they were rewarded with Canada's permission to speak for us. Their first act was to swear loyalty to the King of England. Their second was to declare money raised for Deskaheh "illegally obtained." I'm sure Canada was quite pleased.

For non-Native Canada, Joseph Boyden is another "good Indian." When asked about reconciliation by The Edmonton Journal this past November, Boyden did not talk about giving land back, honouring treaties, upholding the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, eradicating discriminatory gaps in on-reserve versus off-reserve funding or letting sovereign Indigenous nations decide their own fates. Instead he cited "recognizing the treaty territory" and defined reconciliation as "all of us saying, 'We've made mistakes in the past and we've hurt some people very badly in the past and it's time now to move forward together rather than divided.'" Does "all of us" include Indigenous people? And if so, why are we the ones doing the apologizing?

Regardless, Boyden's "reconciliation" message is clear: staying angry — even when nothing has changed to stop what's made us angry in the first place — is divisive. Divisiveness is bad and hinders "true reconciliation." How advantageous for non-Native Canada: they can rid themselves of their pesky guilt without actually examining their continued systemic mistreatment of Indigenous people.

For that, along with telling stories of what Rideau Hall called "common heritage" — stories that make men like Yakabuski reconnect "with my own and my country's history," but make Indigenous people squirm with the unease of seeing more harmful stereotypes about themselves — Boyden has been rewarded with membership to the Order of Canada. Good Indian.

Perhaps non-Native Canadians should stop shouting down 'bad Indians' who dare to speak with authority on their own nations, communities and kinships, and start wondering why they have so much stake in the Boyden controversy to begin with.- Alicia Elliott

Compare that to Cindy Blackstock, who, as the president of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, had the audacity to launch a case against the Canadian government for racially discriminating against Indigenous children by underfunding child welfare on-reserve. She was intensely monitored by the federal government in retaliation and, subsequently, had to file another human rights complaint over this treatment, which she won. Bad Indian.

Compare that to Chief Theresa Spence, who declared numerous states of emergency on the Attawapiskat reserve due to a housing crisis. Canada responded by placing Attawapiskat under third-party management in 2011 and publicly releasing an audit in 2012 that highlighted accounting discrepancies which primarily occurred in the years before Spence became chief. Bad, bad Indian.

Compare that to any Onkwehonwe who has ever stood in Canada's way and faced jail time, legal fees and the unsavoury label of "terrorist." Very bad Indians, indeed — all entirely unsuitable to act as Indigenous spokespeople for Canada's current "reconciliation" project.

Perhaps non-Native Canadians should stop shouting down "bad Indians" who dare to speak with authority on their own nations, communities and kinships, and start wondering why they have so much stake in the Boyden controversy to begin with. After all, Canadians telling Indigenous people who they are and what to think is never an entirely benign exercise.

Alicia Elliott is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing program. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies, including TOK 6: Writing the New Toronto and Initiations: A Selection of Young Native Writing. In 2015, she was chosen as an emerging writer for The Banff Centre for the Art's Indigenous Writing program.