As It Happens

'This feels like an attack': Joseph Boyden responds to report questioning short story's originality

Canadian author Joseph Boyden is once again on the defence after a news report highlighted similarities between one of his short stories and that of an Ojibway storyteller.

Joseph Boyden says latest APTN report on his work 'feels like an attack'

Canadian author Joseph Boyden defends his 2001 story Bearwalker, which APTN points out is similar to a story published in 1989 and credited to an Ojibway storyteller. (Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images)

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Canadian author Joseph Boyden is once again on the defence after a news report highlighted similarities between one of his short stories and that of an Ojibway storyteller. 

An Aboriginal Peoples Television Network report notes parallels between Boyden's short story Bearwalker from the 2001 anthology Born With A Tooth and Inside My Heart by the late Ojibway healer and storyteller Ron Geyshick published in the 1989 book Te Bwe Win.

Both stories reference a man who falls ill, locks himself inside his home by sticking knives in the door jambs, and receives visits from black and white clad people. APTN highlights passages from both stories that share similar wording.

Boyden, who says he had never read Te Bwe Win until these allegations surfaced, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann the controversy centres around "a few paragraphs" of a "6,000-plus word story."

There are some striking similarities, yes, but this was a story that I heard and it was floating around.- Joseph Boyden , author

"Of the hundreds of thousands of words that I've published, no one's ever come to me before and said, 'You've taken my story' or 'You are a thief,' and I think this is the way people are trying to paint me right now — some people, anyway — and it couldn't be anything further from the truth," he said.

The story, reported by APTN's Jorge Barrera, came to light amid the fallout over another Barrera investigation that cast doubt on Boyden's self-proclaimed Indigenous heritage.

"A small part of me is Indigenous, but it's a big part of who I am," he told CBC Radio's Candy Palmater when talking about the APTN report.

"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 said.

"I should be allowing those with deeper roots in their communities to speak for their communities."

Author Joseph Boyden talks to CBC Radio's Candy Palmater about the controversy over his ancestry. 0:42

In an interview with As It Happens, the author called the controversy over his heritage "manufactured drama."

"You know, people want to discredit me, certain people, and it's gotten to the point where I have to speak out now and not allow them to try and discredit me," Boyden said. "To be painted with such a broad brush by a few is deeply unfair."

APTN and Barrera declined to comment on Boyden's remarks.

Who owns oral stories?

Boyden says the tale of the sick man and his visitors is based on an oral story that he'd heard from multiple people in Northern Ontario Indigenous communities in the '90s, none of whom claimed ownership over it. 

"There are some striking similarities, yes, but this was a story that I heard and it was floating around," he said.

"I think what the big story here, or what people want to make, is the idea of who is allowed to tell an oral story and who isn't, and who is allowed to have a voice and who isn't."​

He says he first heard it from trapper Xavier Bird in Fort Albany, Ont., and later heard it again in Moosonee, Ont.

But Xavier Bird's brother Louis Bird, a pre-eminent storyteller in the region, told APTN the parable is not known in the Mushkegowuk Cree territory, which includes Fort Albany and Moosonee. 

"I can't speak for Louis, unfortunately, but I do know what I do know and I know what I've heard," Boyden said.

'This feels like an attack'

Judith Doyle, who co-wrote Te Bwe Win with the late Geyshick based on his own stories and others from his community, told APTN the similarities go too deep to be brushed off as coincidence. 

"The stories formally share intimate structural details, they begin and end exactly the same way, the turns of phrase, the cadence, the description, the characters, such symmetry between the two passages," she said.

She is calling for a full investigation.​

Boyden, however, maintains he has done nothing wrong.

"The sheer amount of energy and time and focus and unhappiness and anger directed at me has been a little bit astounding," Boyden said. 

"This feels like an attack by the same people, the same organization, and you know they will try to silence me, but I'm a storyteller, I'm a writer, I'm not going to allow my voice to be silenced."

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Joseph Boyden

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