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.]