Author Joseph Boyden, under fire over questions about his indigenous heritage, says he has made mistakes and will no longer be a spokesperson for the aboriginal community.
"It's time for me to listen," he told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Wednesday. At the same time, Mr. Boyden vowed: "I will not be defensive about my heritage."
The controversy stems from an investigation about his indigenous ancestry by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network that engulfed the award-winning writer just before Christmas. This came after Mr. Boyden led a group of prominent Canadian writers in a call for "due process" for author Steven Galloway, who in June had been fired from his position as chair of the University of British Columbia's creative writing program over unspecified "serious allegations."
Mr. Boyden said he now feels he was the wrong person to lead that initiative.
Mr. Boyden released a statement on the controversy over his heritage on Wednesday evening.; earlier in the afternoon, he sat down with The Globe and Mail at a Toronto hotel for a wide-ranging 45-minute interview in which he was at turns apologetic and defensive. (Mr. Boyden would only meet with The Globe on the condition that I conducted the interview; I have known the author since 2008.)
Mr. Boyden insisted he has never taken grants or other funding intended for indigenous writers.
The APTN story, published on Dec. 23, explored and could not confirm Mr. Boyden's indigenous heritage, something he has spoken and written about since his first book was published in 2001. The article's aftermath saw a fracture not only in the indigenous community, but among Canadian writers and readers, with the scope of the controversy growing to address his role as a prominent spokesperson for indigenous Canadians.
"I've always said, from the beginning, [that] a small part of me is indigenous, but it's a big part of who I am," he said.
It's the small part that is causing him problems; the APTN investigation traces his family tree, on his mother's and father's side, yet provides no real answers. But also damning, to many, was the collection of quotes Mr. Boyden had given to the media over the years, which pegged his ancestry as Métis, Mi'kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc. Had he knowingly lied about his heritage?
"Never," he said. "People are calling it an 'ever-shifting identity.' I have not [lied]. I have misspoken one time – well, not one time, a few times." When asked about the discrepancies in his statements about his ancestry over the years, he replied: "What are the discrepancies?
"None of those were lies. Again, if there's a need to defend I'll say again: Métis, when I used it, it was as the Canadian federal government defines it. Mi'kmaq was a mistake, and I did make that mistake."
He admits to other mistakes, too, although these all pertain to his role as a voice for the indigenous community, one that has grown louder in recent years.
"What I think has happened, if I can put my finger on it, is that my go-to-guy role as a spokesperson for indigenous issues has outgrown my blood quantum," he said, which he called a "colonial means" for establishing indigenous heritage. "Suddenly I'm the guy speaking to reconciliation, who speaks about the murdered and missing indigenous women. And when I speak about those things they are not something I take lightly. But I've spoken too much. Others need to speak. I completely hear that and understand that and accept that."
He said that: "It's gotten to the point where it's like, 'Well, what about other voices who might not be as easily taken in than yours?' I think we have to start hearing those more in the mainstream media. We have to start hearing from the people who are disaffected, who grew up on the rez, who see me as this outsider."
Rumours and questions about Mr. Boyden's identity have swirled for years – it is something I raised in a 2013 profile – but only now has it gained traction. In the Galloway matter, Mr. Boyden wrote an open letter, signed by many distinguished Canadian authors, in November, that many saw as coming to the defence of Mr. Galloway.
"I realize now, in hindsight, I was the absolute wrong person to be the front man, the spokesperson, for this," Mr. Boyden said of the letter. "I really did believe, naively, it [the first letter] was saying the right thing. It wasn't at all. And I realize that now. I realize that huge mistake."
He was especially apologetic, both in his statement and in person, for saying that people should focus on the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls as much as the Galloway debate.
"I didn't do it with a bad heart," he said. "But what I realized is I spoke too quickly. I spoke without thinking. … If I regret anything, I regret, deeply, any hurt I've ever given or caused for the families of the murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. I did not want to use it callously, but I can see why it was read that way. But, also, unequivocally, I apologize for doing that. I made a mistake and I'm learning from it."
Mr. Boyden dismissed the criticism that he has taken up attention that could have gone to other indigenous Canadian writers, as some have claimed, as well as "this idea that I am somehow adopting the Indian headdress in order to make money as a writer." Mr. Boyden said he has "never taken an indigenous grant, personally, in my life."
(The Canada Council for the Arts website, which lists its grant and prize recipients," shows Mr. Boyden has received six grants and prizes since 2007, for a total of $16,800, but it is unknown if any were meant for indigenous writers.
He won the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book Award (which no longer exists) in 2005 for his first novel, Three Day Road, but, he said, "I got up on stage when I found out I won and the first thing I said was I want to divide the prize" with the other finalists. Each received $1,000.
"The idea that I've somehow hogged all the air in the room, it doesn't hold a lot of water. What I hope and think that my books do, just like Thomas King's do, just like Lee Maracle's beautiful work does, like Drew Hayden Taylor – it makes readers hungry for more, not less."
In any case, more books from Mr. Boyden are forthcoming. The controversy, he said, will not alter the kinds of stories he tells, or the themes he explores. "It's certainly not going to change my role as a writer and what I write." His new novel, Seven Matches, is out this fall.
"I'm going to keep pushing ahead with what I do, but with a lot more care," he said. "I'm here to listen. I'm here to absorb. There's no defending. I'm here to take the next step in my life as an artist, as a person, as a speaker. It will be interesting. It's time to be quiet."