Boyden: ‘I discovered a gold mine’ on James Bay

Amid the controversy of Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous ancestry, or lack thereof, I cannot help but look back on how he presented my hometown and people in the novel that won him the Giller Prize in 2008 — and the lack of recognition he has given to the community directly.

Going back, I initially liked Boyden upon reading his debut novel, Three Day Road. I even wrote a positive review on it for a northern Ontario in-flight magazine. Although choppy at times, I was taken by the fact that Mushkegowuk Cree are the main characters — and snipers at that — in an acclaimed novel set during the First World War.

So I looked forward to his next novel, Through Black Spruce, especially after I learned it was mainly set in my hometown of Moosonee.

Reading the first 60 pages, I was flush with memories as the novel described the town, making specific references to people or places I knew. But as I read on, and when I looked back on some of those early references, I felt something was amiss in how he depicted the community.

One of the characters in the novel mentions an Elder by first and last name. She is described as only speaking Cree, is originally from a northern community, and is known for her beading and crafts.

This is a real person. I’ve known her daughter since kindergarten, and I asked her if she knew about her mom being mentioned in the novel, which by this time was released five months prior and won the Giller Prize. She said yes, but only found out through a co-worker not long before. It had been years since they saw Boyden and didn’t even recognize his name. It was only when they saw his photo that they remembered the man who would come to their house and ask the Elder teach him how to bead and make mitts or moccasins. They never knew he was a writer.

In June 2009, ten months after the novel had been published, I met Boyden when he hosted a fundraising event in Timmins. I mentioned I knew the Elder referred to in the novel, that they didn’t know she was in the book, and they had not seen him in years. He looked down sheepishly. “Yeah, I guess I should go visit sometime,” he said and changed the subject.

Boyden at the time said he visited the James Bay region four to six times a year. But evidently he never took the time to visit the Elder to not only ask permission to use her name, but to tell her he had written in her real name after the fact. In the novel there are other real people named, including some who had died before the book was published. It is unknown if he sought permission in those cases.

In the same conversation, I told him I was from Moosonee, and I grew up on the locally famous “Sesame Street” referenced in the novel.

“Oh, really?” was his reply. That was it. No questions about what I thought of the novel, if it accurately depicted my hometown, if the characters resonated with me. Not even if I enjoyed it. Just disinterest.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him at the time I never finished Through Black Spruce, that I stopped reading with about 100 pages left. While I was initially excited about the novel’s setting and characters, I found the novel to be problematic in how it depicts the community.

Broadly, I found the story lines to perpetuate stereotypes of substance abuse and Indian Princess/Pocahontas fantasies.

But I also found the humour and dialogue of the Cree characters to be confusing. Boyden attempted to incorporate some local slang and speech patterns but it sounds forced and unnatural. It is evident he does not spend a whole lot of time conversing or engaging with locals in a real way nor understand how Crees talk and think. Non-Cree or Indigenous readers might find it charming but Mushkegowuk readers will find it lacking and inadequate in depicting local colour.

I found this to be the same in the short stories found in Born With A Tooth, which I perused one day at a library.

There is clearly some disconnect with the community.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve asked friends and other community members, even today, what they thought of Joseph Boyden, only to get asked: Who? Most don’t seem to know about him and aren’t aware there is a nationally recognized novel that is set in the very town where they’ve lived all their lives.

Following the release of Through Black Spruce, Boyden held no book signings or any event in Moosonee. The town helped to launch his career yet the community has received little recognition from Boyden.

And this is what bothers me the most. Not his suspicious Indigenous ancestry, but his blatant exploitation of the Mushkegowuk Cree.

I interviewed Boyden in 2012, at the behest of my editor, and I asked him why does he write about the Cree people of James Bay? He talked about a love of the people and the land.

Then he said:

“I’ve felt like I discovered a gold mine, and I realized quickly, ‘Oh my gosh, no one has written about the Cree of Mushkegowuk before,’ and how lucky am I as a writer to have this incredibly rich territory to mine creatively.”

The quote reveals to me how he actually perceives the Mushkegowuk and their traditional land: a “gold mine” and “rich territory” from which he can “mine” and extract resources (stories) for his own profit while leaving little connection to the people aside from the few he associates with.

I was angered by this statement. And since then, I have refused to read any new of his works, promote or share his columns or editorials, or have anything to do with him in any way.

There are Mushkegowuk people in other James Bay communities who like Boyden and some have defended him. They say he has helped to bring their stories and issues to the public eye by using his fame and stature as one of CanLit’s elite.

To them, all I can say is they should ask themselves how he acquired that fame — and wealth — to begin with. And are they OK with that?

Because, like Debeers, he came from the south, discovered our riches, and exploited them for his own gain with minimal give back to the community.

He talks about a kinship to the people of James Bay, at one time telling me that since he’s “part Ojibway, the Crees of sort of like my cousins.”

Cousins are like siblings in our culture. Any Indigenous person would not treat their brothers and sisters the way Boyden has.

[Note: An earlier version of this blog entry contained a reference to a family that was unintentionally disparaging. It has been removed. I regret the error and apologize to those affected.]


11 thoughts on “Boyden: ‘I discovered a gold mine’ on James Bay

  1. Thank you. I had serious concerns about J. Boyden, when in the S. Galloway affair, he attempted through M. Atwood to inject S. Galloway as indigenous to add value I supposed to his argument S. Galloway was a victim and was aghast when M. Atwood wanted to know why this had not been in the narrative to date. I also was angered when he made a statement to the Globe and Mail that it would be nice if white people got as upset about indigenous women being abused and murdered. The statement was not published but sent on Twitter as something that was said. I stated at the time there seemed to be a disconnect between the narratives and other people made similar statements as well. I am ashamed and sad this has been done to a community who deserves more. I am sorry he did this to you. He as acquired awards, grants, publications, power and money – and most of all he has taken all that to make himself an authority upon which he can speak to all issues from the indigenous perspective. Thank you again and again. This makes me angry. And sad. And for all those who say jealousy or bitter – he is either indigenous or not. Meah Martin (I think this and the S. Galloway episode has exposed Can Lit (not all) as writers who believe their own myth, and lack a distinct ability to question themselves, be curious about themselves and their beliefs. And in a positive way I guess, perhaps it has made some of us more confident in our own belief systems and maybe we will stop making heroes of people because it diminishes us when we do so.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing, this Boyden and his sister Mary Boyden are dangerous people, they pretend to be Indians for money, Ms. Boyden is providing manufactural consent to oil/gas corporations… we need to out these people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with your comment about the danger of JmBoyden and his sister. I think he should have the Giller Prize taken back and any other awards and monies he has received based on his “indigenous” identity. His publishers need to sort this out. Finally in J Boyden’s reply to APTN he still does not say where he is from.


  3. Certainly a terrible way to treat the people you’re writing about, especially since Boyden has claimed to be a part of the Indigenous community. I’ve shared your article, as you bring up some excellent points about his behaviour. He’s done some pretty questionable things and those actions shouldn’t be excused no matter his ancestry.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very well said… thank you so much for posting.

    I’ve been following commentary on the controversy, and there has been so much that has been very real, transformative insight to me (a non-Indigenous person)… please Indigenous writers, don’t give up the discussion, there are many of us outside the FN life experience who are listening. And learning.

    I would like to think that I make a decent effort to look at every side of a debate, but even giving Boyden the full benefit of the doubt with regard to his mindset/motives, it’s very difficult to see how he could have been more misguided. He bears responsibility for his choices. This is not a kid who found himself swept up by a fib that grew into an avalanche… Much of what he has said, or written, in the past few years does have the appearance of spin in retrospect. Inconsistencies and contradictions do matter, eventually.

    But I have been asking myself: Why has mainstream Canada had an appetite for a “mostly Celtic” (as Boyden says) cultural mediary with Indigenous People in the first place? What’s our issue? What was mainstream Canada looking for? We non-FN Canadians carry much responsibility here. This brouhaha says much more about mainstream Canada’s attitudes than it does about FN People, that’s my conviction.

    So… I’ve read quite a bit of Indigenous angst over this situation, but this will not ultimately be a FN dilemma. This ain’t on you. The onus is on the non-Indigeonus Canadians who fed into the Cult of Boyden. Indigenous People’s historic trauma is Canada’s national nervous breakdown, and with very good reason. Entirely justified. We don’t need writers to excuse our guilt — that isn’t any literary authors’ job. We need to exorcise our own demons. No fantasy will help us get there, I’m afraid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your letter in response to the Boyden debacle. First, in response to Can Lit and Media part in this process, it was when the letter came out supporting S. Galloway I first questioned why Boyden would be putting this out, why Can Lit authours especially M. Atwood supported such a letter and were deaf to the hurt and pain this was causing. Some writers took their names off. When M. Atwood posted the notion that Boyden says Galloway is indigenous, I was angry and confused as to why this was or needed to be part of the narrative. Second, in an interview with Globe and Mail, (not published) Boyden (para) that frankly it would be nice if the white people got as upset about indigenous women who were abused or murdered, again I was angry and confused. Why was this a part of the narrative and it seemed to me that this issue with Galloway was being used for Boydens’ agenda. It certainly cleared up for me why Atwood remained adamant about her position and remained intractable. My question was who would be able to write a letter not including the women, and who, after being advised how much hurt and pain it was causing, would remain deaf to the pleas of the UBC women. I agree with you about wanting an indigenous person who is the model of how we would like to see all of them, and I think Can Lit, fawns – I know, over Boyden, and treats each word as if it were golden and spoken by a messiah. And we do that with others including Atwood and in doing so erase any thoughts or critical thinking. How difficult was it for these young women who spoke out about Atwood. Do you think I could influence M. Atwood to write a post such as she wrote on behalf of Boyden? It is a relief to the media to have an admirable indigenous person because it does assuage the guilt. It is also nice to be seen with your new best friend who is indigenous.

      I posted the following on facebook but will rewrite here. I once had an argument that lasted over two hours. It was with a dear friend I have known since I was seventeen. We were in China Town in Vancouver and for the time it took for the argument to finally end we had walked miles around the same four blocks absorbed in our discussion/argument. What was it about? My friend said that as a Canadian she had a responsibility to the indigenous people of Canada. I said I didn’t know why since I had not done anything personally to them to make me responsible. That was many years ago. I grew up in the Saskatchewan Prairies. Phrases such as, don’t make a fuss, get over it, move on, nothing is handed to you, nothing hard work won’t fix, cry baby, and others. But the message was clear, no one is going to give you a hand up. You have to do it on your own. So I applied the same to indigenous people. Several years ago I watched a documentary on the residential schools. For the first time I saw the damage they caused for generations of people to come. I do not speak for anyone but myself and do not expect anyone to be grateful for my epiphany but I am grateful for it. I hope the year 2017 is one where reconciliation and healing to take place for all Canadians.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Thursday Book Beat: Boyden Controversy, Remembering Carrie Fisher and Twitter Troll Gets Book Deal

  6. Pingback: Representation vs Exploitation, Part III: Intellectual Property & Storytelling Cultures | S. B. Stewart-Laing

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