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Ask a Prof: So what do you think about the Boyden controversy?

Joseph Boyden is a prominent and popular Canadian author, having written many books and won numerous awards. His second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008. He is also indigenous — or at least was believed to be until recently.

In an investigation spearheaded by Jorge Barrera of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), Boyden’s “shape-shifting Indigenous identity” was exposed. Boyden has claimed to have roots to various aboriginal peoples over the years including the Ojibway, Metis, Mi’kmaq and Nipmuc peoples. Boyden admitted to making mistakes in a recent interview for The Globe and Mail but the controversy continues.

Adam Gaudry is Métis and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. He has been quite vocal about the Boyden controversy, especially on Twitter. We spoke with him about Boyden, why the controversy is important, and what happens next.

The Gateway: So why is this issue such a big deal?

Adam Gaudry: There’s this phrase we use when we talk about indigenous identity and the expression is, “It’s not what you claim but who claims you.” And the “who claims you” part of that statement has been unclear for sometime. Behind the scenes, indigenous people have been having this conversation for years. Like, “Is Joseph Boyden really indigenous? What is his community?” This is something a lot of indigenous people feel quite strongly about. There’s kind of a long history of what U.S. scholars call “playing Indian,” which is where non-indigenous people assume a certain identity of indigenous people as a claim to indigenous land and cultures.

If Boyden never was aboriginal, should he have never been writing about aboriginal topics and cultures in the first place? Or is that open for anyone to write about?

This is a much-debated thing. One of the points that Robert Jago brought up on Twitter is that a lot of people in his community have trusted certain outsiders who have put in the time with the community. A lot of the time these are non-fiction writers, historians or academics. If you want to tell indigenous stories and you’re not from that community, you need the blessings of that community. You need to work with that community to ensure what you’re saying is accurate and reflective of their interests. Misrepresentation of indigenous people, even if unintentional, can have massive detrimental impacts. 

We talked a little bit about it but why do you think people “play Indian?” Why is it beneficial for Boyden to claim he’s aboriginal?

I think there’s some people who do it for financial gain, to access university scholarships and such. I think the primary motivation though is people struggling with something that pretty much every one in the modern world is dealing with: “anomie,” or a normalization of normlessness. This loss of meaning. Cultures use to have much deeper meaning in the pre-modern context and we’ve been struggling in the West with an assault on meaning. We’re replacing deeper cultural meanings with material consumption. I think a lot of white people see indigenous cultures as holding much more meaning than their own. In their quest for meaning, they adopt indigenous personas because they see it as meaningful. It’s just a way for them to create that meaning for themselves.

If you were Boyden, what would you do next?

I think he needs to address the original Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) investigation. He keeps mentioning blood quantum which is weird because nobody who is criticizing him is talking about that. The issue that APTN raises is not that he has limited indigenous ancestry but that he doesn’t have any. According to that investigation, there’s no evidence that he has an indigenous ancestor. It’s not a “shades of grey” kind of thing but more like a “black and white” distinction. Plus, ancestry alone does not necessarily make one indigenous. What Joseph Boyden needs to do is either come clean and admit that he’s mislead people or address the substance of the APTN investigation and show how they’re wrong.

One Comment

  1. When someone achieves a high public profile we get lots of quotes and actions to analyse. In the absence of actual hard copy genealogical records to back up Boyden’s claims, all we have are his words and actions to make a judgement with. His interview with Candy Palmater was actually very revealing even though many have been critical of her soft approach and reluctance to press him. What we heard was a fast talking intellectual who thinks he can still live a lie. Candy essentially just let him talk and he exposed himself as a huckster with a variety of intentions. Especially repugnant in that interview was his characterization of his $5000 prize, for the 2005 McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, as too small an amount to be bothered about. Two things stand out for me in his public interviews. The obvious of course is his willingness to claim a variety of indigenous roots without any real proof. This is evidence of someone living in a surreal bubble where all that matters is his ego and sense of destiny. It’s as if he has zero respect for the people he is speaking to on the subject of his roots. This is one of the issues that has so many First Nations people upset.
    The second thing deals with his refusal to condemn the Asper Foundation, and their exercise in Zionist angst, the Canadian Human Rights Museum, for their failure to acknowledge the genocides inflicted on indigenous people in Canada. I’ve chewed up a lot of column inches elsewhere on that subject so I’ll just cut to the chase. Joseph Boyden has gone from being a white suburban Toronto punk/hellraiser, trained by Jesuits, to wealthy international “indigenous” celebrity. It’s a wonder his head isn’t the size of a small car. What he wasn’t prepared for was how to deal with the highly skilled shmoozers in the Canadian Establishment. These folks know how to co opt people while wielding carrots and sticks. It’s what they do best. On some level Boyden had to be ever conscious of his greatest vulnerability…his complete lack of indigenous roots. I think the reason he was so disrespectful in tossing out a variety of answers for who he was descended from is that he really didn’t think that First Nations people could do anything to knock him off the pedestal that the Canadian literary establishment and business establishment had elevated him to. This is glaringly evident in his damage control approach to this controversy. This may not have always been entirely a conscious attitude but, given his words and actions, it’s very clear that he is playing a role..just like his uncle, Injun Joe. Too bad he wasn’t as honest as his uncle regarding lack of aboriginal blood. I believe he and his uncle Erl both genuinely loved the culture but, like his uncle, he used it as an opportunity to make a good living. Unfortunately for Joseph the web of lies that he has spun is so big that he still feels the need to double down. I think he is more concerned with what the fallout will be with his rich and powerful white establishment contacts if he doesn’t continue to live that lie, than what the First Nations communities think about him. If he did care he would have agreed to be interviewed by APTN.
    Post script: The Canadian Establishment and their propaganda arm, the mendacious mass media, have a prime agenda: To support the extraction of natural resources and pay as little in the way of taxes and royalties as possible. To that end they have engaged in media black outs, misinformation campaigns and have also managed to get thoroughly corrupt Canadian governments to subsidize this massive and ongoing theft from the people of Canada. And they’re not finished yet. To that end they have co-opted people like Boyden to give us all the impression that powerful indigenous voices are content with what is happening today, that Trudeau’s recent actions don’t constitute a double crossing pack of lies. It’s no surprise that Trudeau and Boyden are buddies…both birds of a mocking lying duplicitous feather.
    Since there’s a lot of money at stake, Boyden has chosen the “damage control” route instead of taking the path of integrity. His publishers have damage control experts on speed dial who all have well developed contacts in the mass media. This is why we see establishment sock puppets like Jonathan Kay, Konrad Yakabuski and others attempt to mitigate in Boyden’s well deserved fall from grace.

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