Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Can Joseph Boyden make amends with First Nations?

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and author who lives on the Curve Lake First Nation in Central Ontario.

On Tuesday, I was in Mazatlan, Mexico, giving a lecture on native theatre in Canada. After speaking, I opened the floor up for questions. Down front, an older non-native man put up his hand immediately and asked, "I was wondering what your opinion on the whole Joseph Boyden controversy was?" I was two countries away from the hullabaloo's epicentre and people here were talking about it. I told the man it was a complex issue. One I had split feelings about.

The next day Mr. Boyden gave his apology, his explanation, his mea culpa. In it, he admitted making mistakes. Also, he felt the need to listen more, and walk a more humble path. In truth, that is most of us.

Story continues below advertisement

As Canada's literary darling for several years, he found himself in the midst of a maelstrom of publicity and attention. He was everywhere and everybody wanted to talk to him about his work and anything vaguely native. I am sure he'd been asked everything from which is better, Three Sisters soup or hangover soup, to who was the better Tonto: Jay Silverheels or Johnny Depp?

Read more: Boyden admits to mistakes, backs down as indigenous spokesperson

Opinion: There is room in our circle for Joseph Boyden

Denise Balkissoon: Why the facts behind Joseph Boyden's fiction matter

As much as Mr. Boyden was to blame for potentially sabotaging his own claims of aboriginal ancestry, some of the blame needs to go to the media for making him, as he puts it, "become a go-to person in the media when issues arose." Very few of us climb up on a pedestal – most of us are put there.

His comments, I believe, are a move forward in dealing with the multifaceted concerns addressed in the APTN article that questioned his bloodline. And in his own way, Mr. Boyden is keeping with tradition: An important part of many First Nation cultures is the concept of making amends. If somebody has done something wrong, punishment, in a Western definition, is counterproductive. The native way is to believe it's more useful to repair the damage done or restore the harmony that was disrupted by your actions. I think Mr. Boyden is on his way to doing this. How successful he is, we'll have to see.

Unfortunately he and the words written about him have generated a lot of mistrust and confusion in the native community and it will take more than a few humble words of contrition to appease the aboriginal public. Experience has taught most native people that when it comes to written promises or recommendations, like Mr. Boyden's release or those issued by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the proof is in the bannock. It can look pretty but how does it taste?

Story continues below advertisement

Still, I know Joseph Boyden and I believe these words he wrote. He is definitely not the monster many have accused him of being. At worst he was speaking with a voice that was not entirely his. I once claimed on a job application I could swim, but alas I cannot. However, I did not then take up a career in pearl diving. Was it making a cultural mountain out of a molehill of indigenous evidence? Possibly. Or even did he tell a little red lie? We may never know.

As was written in a hundred news stories, claims about his ethnic past were vague and circumspect. Hopefully his future will be more focused and concrete. Somewhat puzzling, his statement sheds only a little more light on his aboriginal assertions, only a flashlight's worth. More confirmations of aboriginal ancestry would have tied up a lot of loose ends and silenced many critics. But all healing journeys begin somewhere. Let's hope this one leads to a more positive ending.

If his next book is aboriginal in nature, this discussion may not be over.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨