Of all the questions surrounding the controversy over Joseph Boyden’s heritage – weighty matters of authenticity and cultural appropriation – perhaps the least crucial one is: What will this mean for his career? That does not mean it’s an unimportant question – certainly not to Boyden, nor to the publishing industry or the many other organizations banking on his star power.
A recent report raised red flags about Boyden’s aboriginal ancestry, citing contradictions that came from Boyden himself and a lack of evidence despite an investigation by aboriginal broadcaster APTN.
This provoked a passionate, sometimes heated, debate – in indigenous communities, academic circles, on social media and beyond. But in spite of the criticism, Boyden, The Globe and Mail has found, continues to enjoy the support of the industry: his publisher, major book festivals and the organizations behind some of the country’s biggest literary prizes.
“We are proud to publish Joseph Boyden,” Penguin Random House Canada spokesperson Tracey Turriff said in the publisher’s first public statement since the controversy erupted last month.
Boyden, 50, is royalty in the Canadian literary world – a bestselling, award-winning author who, over the past decade, has become one of the most recognizable faces in CanLit.
He’s also become an important voice on aboriginal rights. He has been vocal about critical issues facing the indigenous community: missing and murdered indigenous women, reconciliation, the environment. He weighed in quite forcefully during the 2015 federal election.
His fiction is a fixture on bestseller lists, a general shoo-in for awards attention and is taught in schools. He has sold more than 500,000 books in Canada and is published around the world. One of the most anticipated books of 2017 is Boyden’s next novel, Seven Matches, scheduled for release in the fall.
So when, just before the holidays, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network published a story that questioned Boyden’s claims to aboriginal heritage, it instantly became the talk of CanLit Christmases everywhere.
The investigation, by APTN journalist Jorge Barrera, detailed ever-shifting, vague descriptions of Boyden’s indigenous roots. It began by citing a 1956 Maclean’s article titled The Double Life of Injun Joe – about Boyden’s uncle, who was not aboriginal but pretended to be while selling souvenirs near Algonquin Park.
Boyden released a statement in response, explaining that his heritage is mostly Celtic, but that he also has Nipmuc roots on his father’s side and Ojibwa roots on his mother’s. “There has been some confusion as to my Indigenous identity, and I am partly to blame,” he wrote, explaining that he has used the term “Métis” to refer to his mixed blood. He added that to the best of his knowledge he has never referred to himself as Mi’kmaq, but believes it’s possible some interviewers have misheard “Nipmuc” as “Mi’kmaq.”
The controversy has birthed a plethora of social-media spats and yielded many think pieces. Was Boyden an ambitious fraud, misrepresenting himself for financial gain and hogging the spotlight – and opportunities – that should have gone to true aboriginal writers? Or a well-intentioned mixed-blood man who cares deeply about indigenous communities and uses his skills to draw attention to historical and contemporary wrongs? Is the outrage justified? Or is this some sort of envy-fuelled witch hunt?
Beyond the debate over the facts of his ancestry and the relevance thereof swirls the question of the potential impact on his career. Boyden’s fiction focuses largely on the indigenous experience. His first novel, Three Day Road, won several awards, including the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award – as well as the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His follow-up, Through Black Spruce (“an astonishingly powerful novel of aboriginal life,” the book jacket promised), won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Orenda, released in 2013, was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Literary Award and won CBC’s Canada Reads. In October, he released Wenjack, a novella based on the true story of Chanie (renamed Charlie) Wenjack, an Ojibwa boy who died running away from his residential school in 1966.
In 2015, Boyden was named to the Order of Canada – “For his contributions as an author, who tells stories of our common heritage, and for his social engagement, notably in support of First Nations,” the citation read. He has received honorary degrees from Trent University and Algoma University.
He has self-presented as indigenous – and been promoted as such. One of Boyden’s presentations for the National Speakers Bureau is called the Aboriginal Experience. Last year, he headlined an event at the Toronto Reference Library called Celebrating Canada’s Indigenous Writers. He collaborated with A Tribe Called Red on their most recent album, We Are The Halluci Nation.
His Charlie Project, in collaboration with Métis filmmaker Terril Calder, received a $75,000 grant from the inaugural (Re)conciliation initiative in 2015, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. Calder’s film, Let’s Go Home, will be released next fall – although plans to join Boyden on his book tour remain up in the air “as we don’t know what is happening on Joseph’s end,” she says. Boyden also wrote a Heritage Minute about Wenjack, narrated by Wenjack’s sister and Boyden.
There are several Boyden projects being adapted for the screen. Bell Media’s Harold Greenberg Fund provided grants to two such projects last year: Northwood Entertainment received support for Three Day Road; and Buffalo Gal Pictures received a grant for Through Black Spruce, a feature-film adaptation directed by Don McKellar. In 2014, Northwood optioned The Orenda, according to a post on the Canadian Film Centre’s website. Neither Northwood nor Buffalo Gal responded to interview requests by deadline.
Robert Lantos’s company, Serendipity Point Films, announced a TV project, Thunderhouse, written by Boyden and in development with Bell Media, in a January, 2015, news release. Attempts to get a comment from Serendipity for this article were unsuccessful.
Boyden is on faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (currently on leave) in Santa Fe, N.M., was a part-time teacher of aboriginal programs at Northern College in Moosonee, Ont., has spoken at the First Nations University of Canada in Regina, and is artist-in-residence at the University of New Orleans. He has edited an anthology for Amnesty International Canada about missing and murdered indigenous women, and was commissioned by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to write a ballet about the residential-school experience. He was an honorary witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In other words, his aboriginal identification is an enormous part of his working identity. What will these touchy questions mean for future opportunities?
The Globe reached out to a list of individuals and organizations involved in publishing or that have a connection to Boyden – either as a collaborator or supporter. Of those who responded, none expressed criticism. His publisher, to begin with, is standing firmly behind him.
“We are proud to publish Joseph Boyden, a beloved literary icon whose finely crafted, deeply nuanced and illuminating works have inspired countless Canadians to engage and explore the complexities of our country’s past, present and future,” Penguin Random House Canada’s Turriff said in a statement. “We look forward to publishing his new novel, Seven Matches, this autumn.”
Three of the largest book festivals in Canada are also on side.
While formal invitations have not yet been issued for either the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto or the Vancouver Writers Fest, this controversy will have no bearing on programming at either event.
The IFOA’s Geoffrey Taylor says he is “keen” to have Boyden at the 2017 event. “Joseph Boyden has been on our stage on many occasions and we hope to have him again,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“Joseph Boyden is one of the most popular and beloved writers with our audiences and they are always interested in what his books have to say,” Vancouver Writers Fest artistic director Hal Wake wrote in an e-mail. “I can’t see how questions about his heritage would affect whether or not we would invite him to the festival.”
And in Ottawa, artistic director Sean Wilson says the Ottawa International Writers Festival expressed interest in Boyden the moment the new book was announced and that hasn’t changed. “We’re not going to rescind an invitation to the festival to a great writer over something like this,” Wilson said in an interview. He did say the festival might rethink how Boyden is presented – for instance, he might not sit on a panel of aboriginal writers. But Wilson stressed that Boyden isn’t invited to the festival because of his heritage, but because of his books. “That’s one of the great gifts of fiction, offering us the opportunity to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and clearly Joseph is a gifted storyteller.”
Giller Prize executive director Elana Rabinovitch expressed her organization’s support for Boyden. “We are deeply saddened to see how the current situation is evolving,” she wrote in a statement. “We stand by Joseph as a writer and as a friend.”
The executive director of the Writers’ Trust of Canada, Mary Osborne, told The Globe by e-mail that “The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize is awarded solely for literary excellence without regard to the author’s identity, and I don’t think the quality of Joseph Boyden’s writing is in dispute. We stand by our jury’s decision.”
Heather Reisman, chief executive of Indigo, and a major supporter of Boyden’s work, declined to comment on the controversy.
As for book sales, the controversy doesn’t appear to be having a negative impact. Wenjack occupies the No. 7 position on The Globe’s Canadian fiction list this week (with figures provided by BookNet Canada).
Boyden collaborators – artists and organizations – with whom The Globe connected expressed support.
Royal Winnipeg Ballet artistic director André Lewis said the decision to work with Boyden on the ballet Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation was based on his talent as a writer and his commitment to making a work of lasting importance. The ballet received funding from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
“The work reflects the spirit of reconciliation that is integral to the work of the TRC, and Joseph Boyden was an important member of this artistic team,” Lewis wrote in an e-mail. “We are proud of the work, and of our association with this gifted Canadian writer.”
An Amnesty International Canada spokesperson noted that while Boyden did serve as editor for the MMIW fundraising anthology Kwe: Standing With Our Sisters – which includes pieces by Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Gord Downie and Tanya Tagaq – he was not commissioned to do so, but pitched the idea himself. “We didn’t seek him out, seeking an indigenous editor. He came to us. And we would have done the same thing had it been Margaret Atwood or any of the others contributing. If they would have proposed a similar project, we would have certainly been grateful for their support as well,” Jacob Kuehn said in an interview.
A Tribe Called Red was not available to comment on the issue, according to the group’s publicist.
Circle on Philanthropy executive director Wanda Brascoupé Peters says she would not have asked the jury to reconsider funding Boyden’s Charlie Project based on the questions about his ancestry. “The goal was to invite indigenous and other Canadians together to create works of reconciliation … Terril Calder and Joseph Boyden’s work was assessed by a juried process and chosen based on the quality of work,” she wrote in an e-mail.
In a statement, Trent University said Boyden’s nomination and letters of support for his honorary doctor of letters “were focused on his literary work as significantly contributing to the world’s understanding of the intricacies of indigenous and Canadian culture. No one has requested that we reconsider the recognition, which was bestowed on the basis of his writing achievements. As the first university in Canada to introduce an Indigenous Studies degree, at Trent we understand the complexity of indigenous identity in modern Canada and the importance of treating the issue with sensitivity and fairness.”
Boyden was not available for an interview.
There have been questions about Boyden’s heritage for some time. In 2009, when Globe readers were invited to pose questions to the author, one asked about his background. “I know that you have been quoted as saying, ‘Most of the time, I feel more Indian than white.’ Although this is perhaps a hackneyed concern, it is one which I feel has never been solved.”
Boyden replied that the First Nations response to Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce had been mostly positive. “I was never a soldier, I am not Moose Cree, and, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been a woman, but if I, as a writer, were to let these concerns overwhelm me, I would never have been able to write a book. To write about a person or a culture that isn’t completely your own means that you have to treat your subject with real care and respect … Ultimately, I hope that my absolute love and respect for the people and the land comes through in my novels. If I wasn’t passionate about my subject matter, I fear I wouldn’t be able to complete a book.”
With files from Mark MedleyReport Typo/Error