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KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Attacks on Joseph Boyden’s identity should set off alarm bells Add to ...

When I returned to Canada in 2013, after a few years in the United States, I felt a bit like a stranger in my native country. Maybe it was the flat accents of the CBC anchors, or the barren British homeliness of downtown Toronto in January, but I suddenly felt more than a little foreign.

As a journalist, belonging has never been my main aspiration in life. Real journalists typically take pride in shunning all labels, attachments, causes and collectivisms. We are chroniclers of, rather than participants in, the society around us. Still, not even journalists can escape their genes, childhoods, experiences or environments – everything that determines who we are.

Our identities are never fixed, but subject to constant redefinition. In 2013, the Canadian part of my identity needed some refreshment and refinement. I found both in Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda, a haunting story of blood and belonging set amid the 17th-century Iroquois Wars.

Read more: Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden’s indigenous ancestry questioned

Opinion: Joseph Boyden, where are you from?

As a Catholic boy with insistent parents, I was taught about the Canadian Martyrs, was educated by Jesuits and made pilgrimages to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Ontario. No one ever reads the same novel in the same way and, for me, The Orenda prompted a reconnection with my own and my country’s history amid the aboriginal awakening that was just then transforming our collective identity.

That awakening, while a necessary condition for reconciliation between native and non-native Canadians, also contributed to the rise of a less productive form of identity politics among some aboriginal leaders. It was only a matter of time before the latter came back to bite Mr. Boyden.

The Orenda was taken to task for depicting the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, as excessively violent. By the standards of historical fiction, Mr. Boyden arguably took fewer literary liberties than most authors of this genre. But by writing about the wars among First Nations, rather than their oppression by French or British colonizers, he chose a politically incorrect plot twist for the Idle No More crowd.

This did not stop Mr. Boyden from becoming, in the words of one critic, a “darling of non-native Canada.” The Orenda’s critical and popular success – it won the 2014 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads competition – irritated, to no end, many of the practitioners of aboriginal identity politics in Canadian academe and the arts. To them, Mr. Boyden’s personal journey, which led him to rediscover and reclaim in adulthood his own aboriginal heritage, was as made-up as his fiction.

Were they just envious of his glitterati success or did they have a legitimate beef?

Growing up in comfortably white, upper-middle-class Willowdale, Ont., Mr. Boyden had an at-best tenuous connection to the native Canadian experience and its shared traumas. That didn’t make him much different from Barack Obama, who, unlike the vast majority of African-Americans, is not a descendant of slaves and was raised by a white mother and grandparents in comfortable Hawaii. Despite the colour of his skin, Mr. Obama was not born, experientially speaking, an African-American. He became one.

No one can deny that Mr. Boyden embraced the aboriginal experience with humility and sincerity. His only sin was showing too much enthusiasm for a native heritage he may or may not have exaggerated. But he was merely reconstructing, as many of us do, his own personal identity from fragments from the past that he may have previously neglected or under-appreciated. He never sought special privileges that the state or individual band councils confer on First Nations members.

Mr. Boyden, articulate and successful, put on too kind a face for the angry mob of identity politics.

In the age of Idle No More and Black Lives Matter, grievance is the glue that keeps groups such as these together. What’s demanded is endless reparation, not reconciliation. Anyone who promotes the latter rather than the former is a traitor to the group and its cause.

In the United States, this kind of identity politics has reduced the Democratic Party to a confederation of aggrieved minorities that a reluctant Hillary Clinton was constrained to pander to – not convincingly enough for the thousands of African-Americans who stayed home on Nov. 8, but enough to lead petrified working-class whites to form a bloc behind Donald Trump.

It would be a tragedy if the reconciliation all Canadians seek with First Nations were allowed to be hijacked by the kind of identity politics, and its reactionary counterpart, that have overtaken other Western democracies. Mr. Boyden’s lynching should set off alarm bells in this regard.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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