TORONTO — Joseph Boyden’s recent public statement and interviews about his indigenous roots are too vague and don’t fully address the heart of the controversy surrounding his heritage, say academics.
Late last month, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network reporter Jorge Barrera launched an investigation into claims of indigenous ancestry the acclaimed novelist has made throughout his life, and the evidence — or lack thereof — to back it up.
On Wednesday, Boyden released a statement saying his heritage isn’t neatly laid out in official records but instead rooted in stories told by his family. He described himself as “a white kid from Willowdale with native roots.”
The Scotiabank Giller Prize winner behind “Through Black Spruce” also expressed similar sentiments in an interview with CBC Radio’s “Q,” which aired Thursday, and an interview with the Globe and Mail. The Canadian Press asked his publisher Penguin Random House Canada for an interview Thursday but was told he wasn’t making any further comment.
“I think the key thing that remains unaddressed by him is the actual content of the original APTN investigation, and that investigation more or less said not only that he gave conflicting statements on his identity but the genealogical research showed that by the looks of things, he doesn’t actually have indigenous ancestry,” says Adam Gaudry, assistant professor in the faculty of native studies and department of political science at the University of Alberta.
“So while he maintains in the (‘Q’) interview and the statement that he has indigenous ancestry, how that ancestry exists is open to a lot of questions.
“He said that ‘I’ve heard these family stories since I was a kid.’ But interestingly in the APTN original story on this, when they interviewed his family, what they were actually saying is they first heard of this from Joseph Boyden, that he had found that.”
David Newhouse, chairman of indigenous studies at Trent University, says there are four official ways in which one can make a claim to be an indigenous person and therefore have an indigenous identity.
The first is on the basis of indigenous ancestry, which requires evidence of genealogy either in documentary form, written form or oral form.
The second is membership to an indigenous community, which requires evidence of community acceptance or that one meets the criteria for a particular community membership.
The third is by claiming to be a member of an aboriginal nation, either a First Nation or a Metis Nation, which have rules regarding membership.
The last way is by meeting the state rules for being an indigenous person: either being entitled to be registered under the Indian Act or meeting the Supreme Court of Canada definition of Metis that is set out in the Daniels legal case.
“(Boyden) hasn’t made a claim under the state rules,” says Newhouse.
“He made a claim at one point about Metis but has since dropped that. Now he’s made a claim under community but hasn’t told us what community he belongs to. And he’s made a claim about ancestry but hasn’t produced the documentary record.
“I know he has a family history and people say ‘We know this to be true,”’ adds Newhouse. “But … it doesn’t appear to be very specific and no one has been able yet to test it.”
Gaudry notes many indigenous families have very robust stories that they tell about their history and also have genealogists as relatives.
“Most indigenous communities, because of Christian missionization, there are fairly extensive genealogical records,” he says. “Churches are excellent record keepers.”
But Newhouse notes that Canada also has a century-long history of some indigenous identities being eradicated, so documentary records may not be complete or accurate.
For Boyden, who claims his family history is rooted in stories, that means he’s “in limbo.”
“He has made a claim, it’s been disputed and he hasn’t produced any evidence, and so the question is, where does he go from here?” says Newhouse, noting he thinks Boyden truly believes he has indigenous roots.
“It becomes difficult in order for him to produce the evidence, because if it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist.”
Gaudry says if Boyden has family stories that can change how the APTN investigation is interpreted, he should release them. He should also identify with a particular indigenous community which in turn claims him and his family back.
“I think if he’s a storyteller, telling story should come easy and they haven’t really, I don’t think, come out,” says Gaudry.
In the meantime, Boyden appears to be taking a step back.
In the statement, he said he’s spent the last few weeks up north, offline, speaking with his family about their heritage.
He also apologized for being the “go-to person in the media” for indigenous issues, adding: “That role should go to those with deeper roots in their communities — wiser and more experienced spokespeople and elders — who have that right and responsibility, and who can better represent their community’s perspective.”
“If that’s what comes out of this, is a recognition that other indigenous writers should be at the front and that people should read a diversity of indigenous voices, I think that’s a very good thing,” says Gaudry.
Newhouse hopes Boyden will continue to write while exploring his heritage, but also create a forum for other indigenous authors like Wab Kinew.
“I’d like to see him go to the next step then, which is then to work on the restoration and reconciliation aspects of it,” he says. “So now ask the question: How can I now help others?”
Asked Friday about whether Boyden should have been more transparent about his background, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he did not want to comment on the controversy.
Instead he pointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which Boyden was an honorary witness, and how it showed a need for a broad range of voices and perspectives in the national conversation about indigenous issues.
“It’s certainly not to me to opine on the legitimacy of individual voices within this broad, national conversation that we need to continue to have, and that we need to encourage all Canadians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to be part of,” Trudeau said.
“On a personal level, I have to say I’m a big fan of Joseph’s storytelling abilities and his passion and compassion and I certainly hope we hear voices like his and other voices in this conversation very loudly and clearly in the coming weeks, months, years and decades that it’s going to take to create true reconciliation.”