Joseph Boyden sorry 'for taking too much of the airtime' on Indigenous issues

Describing himself as 'a white kid from Willowdale with Native roots,' Joseph Boyden apologized for 'taking too much of the airtime' in discussions about Indigenous issues, during his first interview since an APTN report questioned his ancestry.

'I should allow those with deeper roots in the community to speak,' author noted

Author Joseph Boyden spoke to CBC Radio on Wednesday to address the swirling controversy about his heritage. (Canadian Press)

Describing himself as "a white kid from Willowdale with Native roots," writer Joseph Boyden apologized for "taking too much of the airtime" in discussions about Indigenous issues.

The celebrated Ontario author, who has built a reputation on writing about First Nations heritage and culture, spoke to Candy Palmater of CBC Radio in Toronto Wednesday afternoon.

"A small part of me is Indigenous, but it's a big part of who I am," said Boyden, who reiterated an earlier online statement that he has European, Nipmuc and Ojibway roots. 

A small part of me is Indigenous, but it's a big part of who I am.- Joseph Boyden

It was his first interview since a reporter for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network published an investigation in late December digging into Boyden's background and varying claims of Indigenous ancestry he's made over the years. 

Joseph Boyden: 'I fear my ego has gotten too big for that'

7 years ago
Duration 0:43
Featured VideoAuthor Joseph Boyden talks to CBC Radio's Candy Palmater about the controversy over his ancestry.

"I fear that I've become a bit too big, one of the go-to people when it comes to Indigenous issues in this country," Boyden told Palmater, the Mi'kmaq performer and broadcaster who is a friend of the author.

"I've become too much of a go-to guy. I should be allowing those with deeper roots in their communities to speak for their communities," he said, adding that he feels his "ego has gotten a little too big."

"Others need to speak and I do apologize for taking too much of the airtime," he said. "It's time to jump off that train and pull back a bit."

The Giller Prize-winning novelist has been at the centre of controversy and broad discussion about misrepresentation, cultural identity, mixed heritage and whether he may have profited from opportunities targeted to Indigenous creators.

Boyden bristled at the suggestion that he had accepted prizes that might have gone to other Indigenous creators, and noted that he has only ever won one such award: the $5,000 McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year in 2005 for his debut novel Three Day Road

"I went up on stage and said I would like to share this prize equally ... I've never won any other prize due to my Indigenous heritage," Boyden said.

'This is me'

Acclaimed for novels such as Three Day RoadThrough Black Spruce and The Orenda, Boyden has indeed become a prominent figure in Canada for literary or cultural discussions about Indigenous issues. His most recent work, released last fall, explores the story of Chanie Wenjack, a boy who died in 1966 as he escaped a residential school. 

Named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2015, Boyden also served as an honorary witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"I am proud of my kinship and my blood heritage," he said, rejecting allegations that he is "someone who has adopted a brown skin to make his way into the world.

"No. This is me," he said.

Still, the controversy has made Boyden think twice about being as public a voice. 

"I don't want to be that go-to person for pan-Indigenous issues," he said. "I'm not the spokesperson."

But that doesn't mean he will censor his artistic output.

"The voices who come to me are the voices who come to me. I'm not one to say I'm not allowed to tell the stories they want me to tell," Boyden said.

"As a writer to my core, I have to tell the stories I'm compelled to tell."

Portions of Palmater's interview with Boyden will air on CBC Radio q on Thursday morning.