Joseph Boyden. Image via Getty.

This is how sympathetic columnists have characterized questions regarding the ethnic heritage of Canadian writer Joseph Boyden: a “lynching,” a punishment, and a misguided attempt by “activist communities.” For at least a decade, Boyden has claimed that he is of Indigenous descent. He has subsequently built his career writing about First Nations history and culture, positioning himself has an authority on Indigenous issues; as The Walrus painted him recently, “[Boyden] has Anishinabe ancestry, and his novels are credited with bringing Indigenous experiences to a mainstream Canadian audience.” But a recent investigation, prompted in part by Boyden’s vigorous defense of fellow writer Stephen Galloway, alleges that for years, Boyden has either misled the public about his heritage or, at best, vastly overinflated his ancestral relationship with various First Nations tribes.

Boyden’s literary success owes a great debt to his identity claims, as his novels and novella are presented as offering authentic narrations of Indigenous life and perspectives. Though Boyden has been criticized for rehashing old stereotypes about native people, his three novels trace the saga of a Cree family and are told from the perspective of his Indigenous characters. His first novel, Three Day Road, published a decade ago, was the inaugural winner of McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award. For years, he has given paid lectures on Indigenous issues, filling “seats reserved for native voices,” as Vice Canada’s Steven Goetz described it.

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Last year, he published Wenjack, a novella based on the story Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died from exposure after running away from a residential school. Wab Kinew, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, who is sympathetically critical of Boyden, told the CBC that perspective was important, that readers could approach the novella differently depending on what they knew about Boyden’s identity. “They would probably pick up a copy of Wenjack and look at it differently if they think he’s non-Native versus when they assumed he was Indigenous,” Kinew said.

The conversation about Boyden’s identity has been circulating quietly for some time, but began in earnest recently with a December post on Canadaland. In the post, writer and activist Robert Jago recounted his decision to bring the debate about Boyden to a broader audience, that he “chose...to bring out into the open what a lot of us Natives have been saying about Joseph Boyden privately, that we question his Native identity.” Jago’s decision was prompted, in part, by a tweet from Margaret Atwood, where she notes she had confirmed with Boyden that another Canadian novelist, Stephen Galloway, is Indigenous.

To understand what Atwood was talking about requires a brief retread of the Galloway affair. In 2015, Galloway, then the chair of the University of British Columbia’s creative writing department, was accused by numerous students of a range of offenses, including allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, and sexual assault. In response, UBC launched an investigation. A former BC Supreme Court judge ultimately ruled that the sexual assault allegation was unsubstantiated and found that Galloway and his accuser had a two-year affair. Galloway has apologized for the affair but his accuser swiftly rejected his apology. In a statement issued through her lawyers she wrote:

“Mr. Galloway has issued an apology. But he wouldn’t appear to be apologizing for the finding he has admitted was made against him by Ms. Boyd, which was misconduct for ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour with a student’: conduct which is an abuse of trust and his position of power.”

UBC fired Galloway in June 2016, citing “serious allegations,” but did not elaborate on what prompted their decision. In response to Galloway’s firing, 80 writers originally signed an open letter written by Boyden and addressed to UBC, calling for the university to make the facts of Galloway’s case public and arguing that the university “cast a cloud of suspicion over Professor Galloway and created the impression that he was in some way a danger to the university community.” It also intimated that all of the allegations leveled against Galloway were “unsubstantiated.” In a statement, UBC stood by its decision to fire Galloway.

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But the open letter, signed by some of Canada’s best-known writers, including Atwood, set off a firestorm in the country’s tight-knit literary community. The Globe and Mail characterized the “toxic war of words” as a sharp divide between those who signed Boyden’s letter—largely established writers with name recognition and influence—and the “many younger, female authors calling out the signatories of that open letter on Twitter.” After the letter was published, a handful of the original signatories removed their name. One such example was writer Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, who apologized for “not being more sensitive to how its wording could cause harm.” But even after they were criticized, Boyden and Atwood stridently defended both the letter and Galloway (Atwood, in particular, defended her signature and its call for transparency on social media). In an interview with Globe and Mail, Atwood compared criticisms of her decision to sign the letter with “bullying,” while Boyden took issue with those who accused him of enabling rape culture. “A lot of people are talking shit about me on Twitter,” Boyden told the paper. “Tell one of my sisters or my mom that you think I’m a rape apologist.”

It was in the middle of this already acrimonious back and forth that Atwood shared that Galloway is, as was mentioned above, Indigenous and adopted (his lawyer did not respond to a request for confirmation of those facts). According to Atwood, Galloway’s heritage, confirmed through Boyden, was relevant to the debate, though it is unclear why she thought so at the time. Needless to say, the response to her observation was less than enthusiastic. Enter Jago who, while running the Twitter account IndigenousXca, raised questions about Boyden’s own Native identity as well as his authority to determine whether or not Galloway is Indigenous. Jago later wrote:

I found that tweet to be literally, shout-at-the-screen enraging. In part, because of the low regard it showed for First Nations people (was he assuming that we would overlook sexual harassment because the accused was “one of us”?), but more because Joseph Boyden seemed to have given himself the right to hand out “#indigenous” identity to whomever he pleases. Instead of treating it as a valuable inheritance that our parents and grandparents suffered and fought to maintain, Boyden trivialized it and cheapened it.

Following up on Jago’s tweets, Jorge Barrera, a journalist for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, wrote a comprehensive investigative piece about Boyden’s ancestry. Barrera writes:

Boyden has never publicly revealed exactly from which earth his Indigenous heritage grows. It has been an ever-shifting, evolving thing. Over the years, Boyden has variously claimed his family’s roots extended to the Metis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc peoples.

Barrera tracked Boyden’s shifting identity claims, beginning as early as 2005. He could find no evidence to substantiate Boyden’s claims—according to the available records, Boyden couldn’t be traced to any Indigenous community that he previously said he was descended from. Instead, Barrera found a 1956 profile on Boyden’s uncle Erl who went by the name “Injun Joe.”

A Maclean’s article in 1956 titled, The Double Life of Injun Joe, reported Earl [sic] Boyden “may look like an Indian, think like an Indian and spend most of his year among Indians, but as far as he knows he hasn’t a drop of Indian blood.” The article said Earl Boyden’s father was a “well-to-do Ottawa merchant who traced his family to Thomas O’Boyden in Yorkshire” and that his mother was “Irish.”

Earl Boyden, who died in 1959, appears to have embraced Indigenous culture to the point where the local Ojibway would refer to him as “not a white man,” according to the article.

Over the years, Joseph Boyden has referred to his uncle’s “Ojibway ways” and once told an interviewer that he saw parallels between himself and his “Indian uncle” Earl.

In a statement issued on social media, Boyden denied most of the claims in Barrera’s piece. “My name is Joseph Boyden,” he wrote. “I’m from a mixed blood background of mostly Celtic heritage, but also Nipmuc roots from Dartmouth, Massachusetts on my father’s side and Ojibwe roots from Nottawasaga Bay traced to the 1800s on my mother’s side.”

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Boyden also denied that he ever referred to himself as Mi’kmaq, explaining that interviewers must have misheard what he said, even though Barrera found three separate interviews, beginning in 2005, where Boyden describes himself as Mi’kmaq. Boyden appears to have dropped the Mi’kmaq claim in 2009, or interviewers began hearing him better.

At the heart of the Boyden controversy is identity, both how it’s historically and culturally formed and who can claim it. Boyden’s statement intimates that: despite his unsubstantiated family history (“a small part of me”), he argues that “it is a huge part of who I am.” This, Boyden argues, is his “truth,” and as such, he shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of his heritage. Boyden’s statement has perhaps raised even more questions than it’s answered and many are asking Boyden to be accountable to the community he claims to be part of.

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At Vice Canada, writer Ryan McMahon (who identifies as Anishinaabe) elegantly addressed what the controversy was about:

It’s about his role in the Indigenous community. It’s about how he got that role. It’s about his responsibility in assuming the role he’s playing in contemporary Indigenous issues. It’s about his unwillingness to be responsible back to the community he claims as his own. Somehow, Boyden has gotten by without answering to the Indigenous community he so often speaks for/over. Claiming a community and then refusing to answer back to community concerns (of which there are many) is the real conflict here.

McMahon’s questions have been reiterated by other Indigenous writers who, despite mischaracterizations from a handful of columnists, are not asking for a DNA sample from Boyden but, instead, are asking him to reflect on his position in the community and how he earned it. “Boyden’s understanding [of Indigenous identity] looks like a very white settler understanding, which is really telling,” Kim TallBear told Vice Canada. TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta, whose work on kinship has been cited extensively by Indigenous writers and activists who have addressed the Boyden incident, added, “It is not about some long ago ancestor that you might or might not be able to name or prove.”

The questions being asked by Indigenous writers, activists, and academics seem pretty routine; the articulation and discussion of your relationship with a community that you claim to represent and subsequently profit from is frankly not requesting very much. And much of the pressure stems from the context in which he’s working; Boyden wouldn’t be the first person to conjure up or exaggerate Indigenous claims nor would he be the first writer to engage in what’s been called “ethnic fraud.” In 1977, writer Jamake Highwater won the prestigious Newbery for his book Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey. Through most of his career, Highwater claimed to be Cherokee and Blackfoot, emphasizing his unique perspective, though none of his shifting ancestry claims could be substantiated. More recently, the literary world found themselves embroiled in a controversy over Michael Derrick Hudson. In 2015, it was revealed Hudson invented a Chinese poet named Yi-Fen Chou whom he posed as in order to get published. One writer described Hudson’s performance as cashing in on the “capital of multicultural difference.”

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And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, many see questions asked of Boyden as persecution of him, as infighting amongst those who should support one another. “Mr. Boyden, articulate and successful, put on too kind a face for the angry mob of identity politics,” a columnist at the Globe and Mail wrote, repeating tired clichés about identity politics, suddenly a phrase that hints at McCarthyism and the martyrdom of good men, and comparing questions with a “lynching.” At The Walrus, Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Kay called the questions being asked of Boyden “attacks,” and offered thoughts on the “multiracial human animal.”

Elsewhere, Kay referred to Boyden’s “punishment” from the “anti-Galloway mob,” as though Boyden was simply being penalized for offering a vigorous defense of Stephen Galloway. Interestingly, Jago’s initial tweets which brought the Boyden conversation to the broader public, were, he notes, motivated his deep offense at the insinuation that Galloway’s alleged identity is somehow an excuse for the long list of accusations levied against him. And indeed, as the academic Daniel Heath Justice pointed out, Boyden dismissed critiques from Indigenous women during the Galloway debate and refused to engage in the “continuing aftermath with MRA trolls” who were targeting those same women. Justice argued that Boyden’s dismissive behavior during the Galloway affair was a continuation of an established pattern of behavior, one which is often contemptuous of the critiques offered by Indigenous women. Yet, in Kay’s framing of the debate, however, Boyden (and Galloway, too) is an innocent being ruined by an out-of-control culture of grievance. Perhaps the “mob” that Kay and others see is less of an unruly mass and, more simply, people that have traditionally been unwelcome in a community having a public conversation on social media without the permission of culture gatekeepers.

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If anything, the Boyden debate is a reminder of how quickly questions, particularly when posed by marginalized groups, can be perceived by the powerful as persecution. It’s a reminder of how quickly one can reaffirm power by simply describing complex racial histories with the phrase “identity politics,” a phrase to be treated glibly and reduced to little more than a bludgeon wielded by those who disagree with you. Ironically, the deconstruction of institutional power is part and parcel of the broader project of literature, ostensibly in Boyden’s novels as well, and resistance to that conversation in the proverbial “real world,” outside of the boundaries of fiction, is telling. The authority of Boyden’s work stems from his unique perspective, cultivated largely by his identity claims, and reiterated by him throughout the last decade. Some novels might operate independently of their author, but this is not the case with Boyden. Instead, the framing of the Boyden debate within literary circles, at least, protects the author from critique, transforming those levying criticism into a “lynching” horde or a mob, unable to tap into refined discourse.

It seems unlikely that Boyden will respond further to the questions being asked by many in the Indigenous community. For now, at least, despite the inquiries that surround both identity and the authority Boyden has claimed from it, the literary establishment is standing by the best-selling author as he continues to enjoy their support. In a statement issued last week, Penguin Random House Canada said, “We are proud to publish Joseph Boyden.”