On Ancestry, Identity, and Telling Stories...One Reader's Perspective

If you haven’t heard, celebrated Canadian author Joseph Boyden has come under the microscope over his Indigenous heritage. This isn’t the first time it has happened. Boyden, author of the novels Through Black Spruce, Three Day Road, The Orenda, and most recently the novella Wenjack, has for years been positioned as a spokesperson for Indigenous people in Canada. In the past, some have posed questions surrounding Boyden’s heritage and pointed out inconsistencies in his own personal stories. But it seems those questions were largely left to be minor discussions in the public realm.

Until a couple of weeks ago when Jorge Barrera, journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and blogger Robert Jago raised the question again, this time having done research into Boyden’s genealogy based on his own words and coming up with no evidence to back up what he has claimed.

For a little while, Boyden remained quiet on the subject other than issuing a statement reaffirming what he believes is his Aboriginal ancestry. This week, he finally made an appearance, though a rather controlled one, to speak about the controversy with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC.) This appearance did not do much to clear things up but did see him announce that he was stepping out of the space as Indigenous spokesperson he has for a long time occupied.

I have no Aboriginal heritage. This isn’t a discussion for me to wade into with any commentary as to how anyone should feel. I do not defend Joseph Boyden. I do not speak for or, more importantly, to any First Nations people as their voices are heard loud and clear on this issue. And I do not want to tell anyone what they should feel about this issue. I know that the land I live on was stolen from the people it belongs to. I’m proud to be Canadian. There is so much about this country that makes me feel this way. But I also know the pain this country has caused the Indigenous people over hundreds of years and I acknowledge the lack of understanding we have of the cultures of those people.

So I speak only for myself when I say I have been taken by Boyden.

Increasingly over the last few years, I have wanted to learn more about our Indigenous cultures not from textbooks but from the people themselves. And to do that, I most often turned to books. Boyden’s works were some of the ones that I turned to and he was a person in whom I placed great trust and admiration due to his visibility in the media. While he wasn’t the only voice I listened to, he definitely dominated the airwaves. And if this is only through his own self-identification, then I’m annoyed with myself that I let celebrity take precedence over who I put my faith in.

For me, the issue is not about whether a person can write a book about a culture that is not their own. I believe that many people can, and do, write appropriately about something other than what they have lived. But they cannot position themselves as a spokesperson for that culture. Especially when there are so many other voices that could more eloquently and appropriately take that position. Whether through a conscious decision to market himself as Aboriginal or unintentionally misleading people and not speaking up to correct, Boyden has taken that position away from the people who deserve that place.

Boyden has stated before that while a small part of his ancestry is Indigenous, it makes up a big part of who he is. This is a subject that has been much discussed in my home since it all came out. My husband has Indigenous ancestry, he can point to recent names on the family tree to tell you where that ancestry comes from. But for his family and many people where he comes from, it is ancestry, not identity. The only connection he has to the group is through his blood. He wasn't raised in their culture and his personal opinions is, how can he speak for a group of people especially when there are people who are in much better positions to do so.

There is a difference between ancestry and identity and it seems to me that Boyden has confused the two. What place this comes from, I don’t know. His books are fiction, always have been and always will be and there this nothing wrong with reading them as long we as recognize them as such.  Fiction can often expose us to and teach us about other cultures. But the identity of the author is important when this happens. This is very important when we elevate this author to the status of spokesperson, when we take their voice away from the page and into cultural discourse. And it is most important when it is the cultural discourse that is the most visible to outsiders.  When we speak about Indigenous issues, we must remove Boyden’s name from the conversation. There are other people who are telling these stories and those are the voices we should be listening to when we seek to gain understanding of the Indigenous experience.

Boyden’s publishers, as well as many in this industry, are standing by him and that’s fair for them to do. But it’s time that as non-Indigenous readers elevate other names to the status we gave his.


APTN: Author Joseph Boyden's shape-shifting Indigenous Identity

Peggy Blair: Joseph Boyden's Disputed Status as Indigenous Spokesperson and Why It Matters

Globe and Mail: There is room in our circle for Joseph Boyden

CBC: Joseph Boyden's first interview 'a start' but it leaves unanswered questions

Toronto Star: The Boyden affair just got murkier

CNW: Statement by Joseph Boyden

CBC: Who gets to speak on behalf of the Indigenous community?

Cheryll Toney Holley: Award-winning Canadian Author Claims that Dartmouth Indians are Really Nipmuc?

As I try to gain more understanding, these two Twitter accounts have given me much to think about:


  1. Fantastic article that expresses much of what I've been feeling. I, too, and other friends as well, feel taken. I don't understand why he felt the need to take the spotlight, why he never backed down... Ad he's part of a Hot Docs Cinema Curious Minds panel in March on the topic of "Writing Canadian History". Sigh.


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