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Photo Credits: Bryan McBurney

Over the past couple of months, a controversy has risen amongst the Indigenous and arts communities across Canada. Well-known “Indigenous” author Joseph Boyden (The Orenda, Three Day Road) has been pulled into a different spotlight than what he is normally used to, as he is being questioned about his apparent heritage.

During his career, the writer has claimed native heritage, ranging from Métis, Ojibwe and Mi’kmaq to Wendat and Nipmuc — while also acknowledging his Celtic ancestry. However, in December a journalist from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) dug into the author’s background and found no evidence that Boyden was of Indigenous heritage, just European.

The question of identity is at the center of this debate, and the issue focuses in on when Indigenous belonging does not necessarily need to be through bloodline. There are plenty of individuals who have been adopted into Aboriginal communities across Canada—it is not just about DNA.

Terry Glavin, a non-Aboriginal National Post columnist and author, earned his position to write and comment on the effect of residential schools by re-telling individuals’ stories. He spent the majority of his time living with Aboriginal communities and earned that trust and right. He never exploited these stories for his own personal gain. To many Aboriginal peoples in Canada, Glavin has earned that right to speak for them; ultimately earning a spot within the Indigenous community.

A more recent example of this acceptance into the Indigenous community without a bloodline is The Tragically Hip’s lead singer Gord Downie. His attempts of reconciliation with his “The Secret Path” project has led to him being honoured at the Assembly of First Nations and granted a Lakota spirit name, Wicapi Omani — meaning “Man who walks among the stars.”

The problem arises when Boyden is claiming this identity and exploiting it as a platform to push his work, considering they are indigenous-based. Boyden does not need to claim this bloodline in order to write beautiful pieces of literature, yet by doing so, it is taking away from the voices and experiences of true Aboriginal authors.

Along with being a writer, Boyden has also become somewhat of a politician amongst Aboriginal people in Canada. He has been asked questions on Indigenous issues within the media, and is therefore voicing opinions on something he does necessarily relate to. Just because he claims he is of Aboriginal heritage does not give him the authority to comment on understanding problems first-hand.

Although this provides a great spotlight on contemporary Aboriginal matters within Canada and highlights the importance of reconciliation, Boyden is not allowing those who are actually living with these issues to voice their experiences.

As of mid-January, Boyden is being adopted into the community by close friend Lisa Meeches, a well-known Aboriginal film-maker. The author has agreed to participate in this adoption ceremony; however, if he is already claiming to be part of the indigenous community through bloodline, why does he need to have a ceremonial acceptance into it?

Something to take into consideration during this controversy is the difficulty of knowing Aboriginal ancestry. When understanding the history of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, it is not surprising that it can be near impossible to trace your genealogy through the destruction or lack of records kept due to events such as Residential Schools or the Sixties-Scoop.

Boyden has also pointed out that he knows he is of Indigenous heritage due to the passing of oral history, which is a huge part of Aboriginal peoples culture. However, Boyden is also claiming to have definite evidence of this lineage, but he will not provide it.

From this point onwards, Boyden should stop claiming a “native” bloodline when he cannot even decide which community he is actually from and instead focus on his artistry of writing Aboriginal literature. As for political issues within the media, individuals with deeper roots to the Indigenous community should be granted a voice in order to properly represent the struggles from their community’s perspective.

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