As It Happens

Joseph Boyden must take responsibility for misrepresenting heritage, says Indigenous writer

Rebeka Tabobondung, editor of Muskrat Magazine, says she wasn't surprised by a recent investigation into the writer, but she was happy to see it come out.
Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden. (CBC)

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Joseph Boyden is one of Canada's most prominent writers on Indigenous history and culture.

He won the Giller Prize for his 2008 novel Through Black Spruce, and CBC's own Canada Reads competition in 2014 for The Orenda.

But in a recent investigation, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network became the latest to question claims Boyden has made about his own Indigenous heritage. The piece points out his "ever shifting" statements about his family's connection to, at various times, Metis, Mi'kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc peoples.

"While the majority of my blood comes from Europe and the Celtic region," Boyden said in a statement to APTN, "there is Nipmuc ancestry on my father's side, and Ojibwe ancestry on my mother's [sic]."

In a response on Twitter after the story was published, Boyden acknowledged that he was "partly to blame" for the confusion related to his Indigenous identity. But he went on to re-assert a previous statement: "A small part of me is Indigenous, but it is a huge part of who I am."

Rebeka Tabobondung says she wasn't surprised by the recent reporting, but she was happy to see it discussed. Tabobondung is the editor of Muskrat Magazine, an online Indigenous arts and culture publication. She discussed Boyden with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

Rebeka Tabobondung is the editor and publisher of Muskrat Magazine. (Muskrat Magazine)

Rebeka Tabobondung: The piece goes quite in-depth in terms of actually tracing his genealogy, through consulting archival records and speaking with a recognized genealogist, trying to actually trace his familial roots, including interviews with his family members. My take-away is that he has next to no Indigenous ancestry, if any at all, that can be proven in this format. To me, the piece is just a very factual piece that reveals what a researcher and news organization can about his ancestry as an individual.

Helen Mann: Joseph Boyden has responded to the investigation with a statement that says he has Nipmuc roots and Ojibway roots on each side of his family, one or the other, and he described his Indigenous heritage as a "small part of me." What do you make of his defence?

RT: I think that is fine. I think that is his truth that he's speaking. The problem, for me, is that he's been described as a shapeshifter, in the sense that he has not been up front or clear about what those roots are exactly, and which nation he comes from. My own experience with him was, I asked him directly while I was attending an Indigenous literary conference, "What is your connection? What is your nation?" This is not an uncommon question. As a publisher, with Muskrat Magazine, we always ask our writers, "What is your nation affiliation?" He said, "I'm from Wasauksing First Nation." And I, at that time, got really excited because I'm from Wasauksing First Nation. I was surprised. I asked around the community. I asked a recognized community historian what his connection was, and she said she didn't know.

HM: Do you think Joseph Boyden has profited from his association with Indigenous identity?

RT: Absolutely I think so. He has profited in the sense that his public profile has very much increased. And then there have been all kinds of financial gains that he has profited clearly from as well. The article also speaks to that. He's won Indigenous prizes in terms of literary competitions. In terms of arts funding, he's received a lot of that.

HM: On the other side of this, does his profile and his pointing out these issues to so many people – to an international audience, really – also benefit Indigenous causes and Indigenous communities?

Author Joseph Boyden sat down with Candy Palmater, then guest host of CBC Radio's q, in Toronto to talk about his novella Wenjack in an interview that aired in October. The novella is about an Ojibwa boy who froze to death after he ran away from a Northern Ontario residential school in the 1960s. (Bria John/CBC)

RT: I think that it does benefit to a certain degree, elevating some of these issues. But at the same time, I think as a society, we want these issues to be brought to the forefront in an honest way, in a way that has integrity, that reveals these issues in all of their complexities. So when somebody is speaking on behalf other communities, and they're not grounded in that community, there are certain losses that happen in terms of their interpretation of history. There's a lot of criticism in the native community that his approaches to depicting Iroquois history and people, that it has negative consequences and it feeds into the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about Indigenous people. Within our communities, for all artists, we have a responsibility to the people we're representing and the stories that are being told. There are certain protocols. A huge part of that is speaking from a place of truth.

HM: Since this story came out, I've read a number of people say they don't think this is a conversation that should be held in public, that it's a conversation that should be held within Indigenous communities. Do you think there's a point to that? Is there potential damage in having this broader discussion outside of those communities?

RT: No, I don't think there is damage in having the discussion. The point is not to make him crumble and destroy lives. But I think that we all come from different walks of life, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. When we take on spaces of leadership, we should all make an effort to locate ourselves. Even as Indigenous people, some of us are adopted into communities. Some of us are raised in cities. Some of us are raised on the reserve. Some of us have been raised on trap lines. We cannot speak for those other communities we don't come from. As a society, I think, we all have a responsibility to locate ourselves and to recognize what our privileges are and what the gaps are, where we don't have the right to occupy another person's space.

Joseph Boyden won the 2008 prize for his book "Through Black Spruce."

HM: What would you like to see Joseph Boyden do next?

RT: I feel that his response, that he feels he's been shamed – that people that are critical of how he's misrepresented himself, that we are just shaming who he is – I think that is very sad. I don't think he should be ashamed of who he is. I don't think anybody should be ashamed of who they are. But he should be answering to the call that he has misled people, that he is taking money for his benefit, and that his profile has been increased immensely. I think it would be great to look toward some of our teachings, the Seven Grandfather teachings, of being a person of truth and also humility. Those are hard things. Those are some of the hardest things we all struggle with in life. So I just hope he doesn't feel shame for who is, but that he takes responsibility for what he has done.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. As It Happens requested an interview with Joseph Boyden. He was not available. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Rebeka Tabobondung.