More on Ottawa Book Awards Shortlist! #UmbrellaMan

Very kind of Marlène Barré, the Cultural Funding Officer at the City of Ottawa, to send me the jury’s notes on Umbrella Man as well as the official photos from the celebrations.  Here they are!

Umbrella Man

In Umbrella Man, Peggy Blair shows us Havana’s people and politics with compassion and humour, through the eyes of the shrewd Inspector Ramirez. This is storytelling at its most deft and confident, illuminating the human condition in its smallest details, and the state of the world in its big picture.

City Hall, October 2017, Ottawa Book AwardsCity Hall, October 2017, Ottawa Book AwardsCity Hall, October 2017, Ottawa Book Awards

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Ottawa Book Awards

Class act last night at the Ottawa Book Awards. It’s a bilingual event, free to the public, and held in the Jean-Pigott room at City Hall. Umbrella Man had been shortlisted for the Best English Fiction Award, which came as a complete surprise since it’s a genre novel and set outside Canada.

I didn’t win, but I had a chance to catch up with Mayor Watson, who has always been a huge supporter (and who often attends my book launches), and sat with fellow author Patricia Filtreau who snapped this picture of finalists and semi-finalists.

Ottawa Book Awards

Congrats to John Metcalf, who won in this category; to Charlotte Gray, who won for best English non-fiction and to the other winners, and congrats to the organizers for pulling off a successful event. Here’s a complete list of winners compiled by Peter Robb for the Ottawa Citizen.

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City of Ottawa Book Award #Shortlist!

Very nice to learn that Umbrella Man has been shortlisted for an Ottawa Book Award! Here’s the link to the complete list of Ottawa authors — with thanks to Peter Robb). Really great company to be in! Thanks, Ottawa and good luck to all my fellow authors!


The 2017 finalists for the prize in English fiction are: 

Peggy Blair for Umbrella Man (Simon & Schuster Canada)

Nadia Bozak for Thirteen Shells (House of Anansi Press)

Faizal Deen for The Greatest Films (Mawenzi House Publishers)

Katherine Leyton for All the Gold Hurts My Mouth (Goose Lane Editions)

John Metcalf for The Museum at the End of the World (Biblioasis)

The finalists for English non-fiction are:

Kevin Burns, for Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit (Franciscan Media)

Deborah Gorham for Marion Dewar: A Life of Action (Second Story Press)

Charlotte Gray for The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped our Country (Simon & Schuster Canada)

Nathan M. Greenfield for The Reckoning: Canadian Prisoners of War in the Great War (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd)

D. Peter MacLeod for Backs to the Wall: The Battle of Sainte-Foy and the Conquest of Canada (Douglas & McIntyre)

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Nice …..

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Agent Rejections – Here are some samples. Read ’em and weep.

For a variety of reasons, I am no longer writing the Inspector Ramirez series. I had one publisher that owns world English rights to the first two books and another that owns Canadian rights to the second two books and all of that meant it was impossible to sell the series in the US or elsewhere. Lessons learned.

I had great hopes, nonetheless, for finding an agent for my historical fiction manuscript. After all, I’m a bestselling author, right? Well, wrong.

Here is a sample of the most recent rejections I’ve received. It’s a little known facet of the publishing industry, but the constant damning by faint praise can leave you without any confidence in your ability to write, much less get published. It’s certainly left me not wishing to query any further, particularly when so many of these rejections came from agents my fellow authors  referred me to.

(And for those of you who say don’t give up, it’s part of the process –  I went through 156 rejections before The Beggar’s Opera was published. I really didn’t expect to have to go through that number again.)

The one that stung the most came from an agent a good author pal had referred me to, the one who said it was like reading homework. Not going to lie. That one hurt.

Read ’em and weep.

“I have now had a chance to look at PEACE WOMAN’S DAUGHTER and the material on the psychic thriller series idea. While I admire your sure hand with plot, I didn’t respond to the writing in the way I’d hoped, and felt it difficult to really connect with the characters. This is such a subjective process, as you know, and I regret that I don’t feel that I’d be the best representative for your work.
* * *
“There’s so much to admire in The Peace Woman’s Daughter, but I found that I didn’t have the passion for it that I had hoped to. Responses to fiction are very selective, and I’m sure another agent will feel differently.
* * *
“Thanks so much for sending along THE PEACE WOMAN’S DAUGHTER back in October. Although the history here is fascinating, I’m afraid we weren’t connecting wholeheartedly, so despite our admiration we ought to step aside. We’re very grateful that you gave us another shot, though, and we wish you the best of luck!
* * *
“Thank you for the opportunity to read a sample of THE PEACE WOMAN’S DAUGHTER. I was struck immediately by the haunting voice of Jigonsaseh in that first chapter, but I didn’t have the same emotional response to the next scenes from Father Lamberville’s POV, which seemed just a touch stiffer, a bit dry. So, after a lot of thought, I’ve decided to pass on the project.
“I eagerly read the sample pages but unfortunately, your project doesn’t seem right for me. Since it’s crucial that you find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to step aside rather than ask to represent your manuscript.
“There’s some great prose in these pages, but I’m afraid I have reservations. I’ve been finding it really difficult to place historical novels of this sort, and I just don’t have confidence in my ability to find it a good home. I’m so sorry! I really appreciate the opportunity, though, and wish you the best of luck.
* * *
“Fiction, as I’m sure you know, is just about the toughest thing to sell in the current marketplace. I need to really fall in love with something before I can even think of taking it on. Though there is much to appreciate here, I’m afraid that I ultimately didn’t believe I would be its best advocate.
* * *
“As to your material, I’m afraid I will be passing. While your credits are certainly notable, I’m just not drawn strongly enough to the concept of your story to feel that I’d be the right agent for this project.
* * *
“Thanks so much for being in touch. I’m flattered that you thought of me for this, but it just didn’t strike a chord. I do admire the quality of the writing and the execution and I’m sorry it wasn’t a fit for me.
* * *
“Well, I just took another look and my reaction is that it feels like homework reading it – lots of information; and it feels like it’s trying so hard to be correct in all its details that it’s forgetting to tell a story that will hook the reader. The characters aren’t thinking or speaking like real people.
* * *
“Thank you so much for sending this along! So I love the writing here a lot. And the voice is fantastic. I can tell immediately I’m dealing with a real storyteller; ultimately, though I worry that the historical element of this isn’t compelling enough to stand out. Historical is extremely difficult in its own right, and I felt like the meat of this story took a little too long to get going, there’s a slowness to it that I think will prevent readers from really sinking their teeth in and hanging on.
* * *
“Afraid that I’m going to step aside. The writing was solid, but it felt like there was too much backstory and the characters weren’t quite driving the novel the way they could. Things definitely improved when we got to the native americans, but it didn’t feel like it was quite as strong as it could be. So sorry, but best of luck with it!
* * *
“I really admire your work, and I’m on the fence, but ultimately the deciding factor for me is that you need an agent who is completely passionate and committed and can sell your work with lots of determination and conviction. It’s not enough to be admiring. You need a strong advocate!”

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Fan Mail! #SpoilerAlert

Nothing makes an author happier than a happy reader, so a big shout out to Frank who took the time to drop me a note in the mail. I love getting fan mail! So happy he enjoyed the books. (But I’m sorry to say that Umbrella Man is the last we’ll hear of Inspector Ramirez; it’s the last book in the series.)


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The Inconsistencies in Joseph Boyden’s Various Backgrounds

I’ve had a lot of my non-indigenous friends express sympathy for the beleaguered author, Joseph Boyden. They think his background sounds complicated and that perhaps  he’s being unfairly criticized for not being “Indian enough,” as one of them said to me today.

The discussion that’s been raging on social media, however, is not about “how Indian” Boyden is, but whether he has any indigenous ancestry at all, or whether he’s made that up entirely.

This is based on two major concerns: his wildly divergent stories about his ancestry, and the inability of APTN, after conducting a genealogical/archival search, to find any indigenous ancestry at all. Boyden argues, in response, that the records don’t reflect his family history and that the family hid their indigenous ancestry, and for sure, that’s always possible.

So let me simply set out  a list of some of the inconsistencies that remain problematic, despite his  interviews this week with Candy Palmater on CBC and Mark Medley of the Globe and Mail.

In 2005, Boyden told the Quill and Quire that there was “Métis in [his] ancestry, and his father’s Irish-Catholic family history also has some Micmac in the mix.”

The mention of his father being part Micmac (Mi’kmaq) appears again in an interview with The Scotsman that same year, and a further reference to his aboriginal “blood” as including Mi’kmaq  was reported in the Globe and Mail in 2008.

In his December Twitter statement responding to the APTN article, Boyden said that he did not recall ever saying he was Mi’kmaq and that the interviewers must have misunderstood him when he said his father had Nipmuc blood. The Nipmuc are a small Indian tribe in the US, so this certainly seemed plausible, as the two words sound similar.

Here’s the entire tweet:

However, Boyden told an New Orleans reporter that he was “Mi’kmaq on my father’s side. They’re an east coast tribe in Canada.” Which really negated any suggestion of confusion on the part of the interviewers. In his interview with Mark Medley yesterday in the Globe and Mail, Boyden finally admitted that indeed, he had said he was Mi’kmaq, but it was a mistake:

“Métis, when I used it, it was as the Canadian federal government defines it. Mi’kmaq was a mistake, and I did make that mistake.”

Medley didn’t ask him to explain how the mistake originated, but I would note that the Mi’kmaq are a completely different nation from the Ojibway or Nipmuc, linguistically, culturally, and territorially. It would be like telling someone I’m Welsh or Polish, when I’m Canadian. I don’t really know how one could make that mistake or do so repeatedly.

As for the claim of Nipmuc heritage, in the statement he provided APTN  for their original story, Boyden wrote:

Over the last few decades I, along with some siblings, have explored my family’s heritage. We’ve uncovered and traced a fascinating and personal genealogy, a genealogy often whitewashed of our Indigenous ancestry due to the destructive influences of colonialism,” said Boyden, in the statement. “While the majority of my blood comes from Europe and the Celtic region, there is Nipmuc ancestry on my father’s side, and Ojibwe ancestry on my mother’s [sic].”

Barrera reports: “It wasn’t until about 2014, in an interview with Walrus magazine, that Boyden began to say his father’s ancestry included links to the Nipmuc. The next year, in an interview with CBC’s Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild, Boyden revealed he discovered Raymond Wilfred Boyden’s Nipmuc heritage by reviewing Nipmuc membership rolls.”

I find it interesting that Boyden would rest his claim to Nipmuc heritage on his father’s side by relying on historical census documents but deny the reliability of historical materials when it comes to the  Ojibway heritage he claims, but I digress.

The problem is that the Nipmuc themselves don’t support the information Boyden provided. The Nipmuc’s main historian and genealogist says she finds the claim confusing. In the APTN story, she points out that Boyden is not a Nipmuc name. She looked at the female names of Boyden’s ancestors from the records (which remember, predate the date of the census rolls Boyden relies on) and couldn’t find  a connection.

Although Boyden said in his Twitter statement that his Nipmuc ancestors were from Dartmouth, Massachusetts, she debunked that altogether:

I think it’s very hard to maintain a claim based on one’s own research when that research is  not only not supported by the  historical evidence,  but is contradicted by those who are actual experts in the area. That leaves us with  Boyden’s claim to Ojibway ancestry.

In his Twitter statement, as noted, he claimed his Ojibway ancestry through his mother; his father’s ancestry, he said, was Nipmuc. However, it is through his father’s brother, Erl, that Boyden has most often referred to his Ojibway heritage. The 2008 Globe and Mail article refers to this claim, that both sides of the family had Ojibway “blood”:

Both his father, an Ottawa-born Irish Catholic who later became a doctor and served with distinction in the Second World War, and his mother, an elementary-school teacher of Scottish origin, had aboriginal blood (Ojibwa, Mi’kmaq). During the summer, they’d take their 11 children – Boyden was the third youngest – camping and canoeing in and around Georgian Bay where the Jesuits once roamed. An uncle, Erl, his father’s older brother, was nicknamed “Injun Joe” and, when he wasn’t “travelling the world like a bum – he was even in a Jimmy Cagney movie years ago,” he lived in a tepee in Algonquin Park.

In the 2008 Penguin Reading Guide to Three Day Road,  Boyden wrote that “In the summer of 1945, Erl, my dad’s older brother, was living a traditional lifestyle in a teepee near Algonquin Park, selling crafts to tourists.” He adds: “I grew up with history and myth swirling around me, stories of my father’s war exploits and my uncle Erl’s Ojibwa ways inseparable.” He referred to his uncle as somehow acquiring the “horribly racist moniker” Injun Joe.

But as both APTN and blogger Robert Jago reported, “Injun Joe” chose the moniker himself, as part of a persona he adopted to sell Indian souvenirs.

Jago posted several newspaper articles about a coroner’s inquest into the tragic death of a tourist in the mid 1950s when  Injun Joe put on a headdress at the request of a tourist, and fired what he thought was an unloaded rifle. Injun Joe was cleared, but all the news reports of the time indicated that “Injun Joe”  was not really an Indian, but Erl Boyden, a white man. (You can see these stories imbedded in the APTN story, along with some pictures of Injun Joe.)

Dorothy Sangster of Macleans magazine did a lengthy feature about Erl Boyden in 1956 called The Double Life of Injun Joe. Here are a few excerpts:

When Erl Boyden was five years old, his Uncle Richard  took him to a wild-west show in Ottawa and introduced him to Buffalo Bill.

Excited by tom-toms and war cries and trailing war bonnets, little Erl fell in love with Indians on the spot. He took to cutting out pictures of Indians, improvising Indian costumes, collecting Indian souvenirs. His bedroom in the old Boyden home on Mackenzie Avenue, in the shadow of the Parliament Buildings, became a litter of bows and arrows and buckskins. His most treasured possession was a five-foot cotton tepee his aunt Bertha O’Donaghue sent him from New York. The Last of the Mohicans was his favorite book and he and his two brothers saved their nickels to see Broncho Billy Anderson on Saturday afternoons at the neighborhood movie house, and Custer’s Last Stand, a stage show that came to Ottawa’s Grand Opera House in 1907. School bored young Erl—his thoughts were elsewhere. He saw himself as a white boy who by his knowledge of hunting and outdoor lore is adopted by an Indian chief and given a place of honor in the tribe.

Boyden is sixty years old now, but he’s still playing Indian. All summer long you can find him sitting beside the highway at Dwight, a small resort town 160 miles north of Toronto on the road to Algonquin Park, under a sign that says, “Ugh! Indian Souvenirs!” The tourists know him as Injun Joe.

The toy tepee has changed into a real tepee. The buckskins and tomahawks are spread out on counters for sale. The child is a man who refuses to put away childish things. “Haven’t you guessed? I’m a case of arrested development, Peter Pan in a war bonnet.” he says. Erl König Boyden— he was named after his mother’s favorite Schubert song— has been soldier, sailor, artist, stage designer and Jack-ofall-trades, but says the proudest day of his life was the day he met Buffalo Bill….

He says: “They come here and buy armfuls of stuff marked ‘Algonquin Park.’ they take pictures of what they idiotically believe to be a real live Canadian Indian and away they go into the wide blue yonder, happy as larks. Who am I to spoil iheir fun? Next year more tourists will arrive, similarly bathed in gloom and burdened with filthy lucre. Ah well, as the French observe so truly, c’est la vie!”

In the news release Boyden issued this past week in response to the swirling controversy, Boyden says that “My family’s heritage is rooted in our stories. I’ve listened to them, both the European and the Indigenous ones, all my life. My older sisters told me since childhood about my white-looking father helping his Indian-looking brother hide their blood in order to survive in the early 1900’s.”

That Indian-looking brother he refers to was clearly Erl Boyden. If Erl was trying to hide his identity, he certainly found a peculiar way to do it: he didn’t try to pass as white, but as Indian. And he himself denied that he had any Indian blood. Once again, from the 1956 Macleans article:

Erl König Boyden may look like an Indian, think like an Indian and spend most of his year among Indians, but so far as he knows he hasn’t a drop of Indian blood. His father was a well-to-do Ottawa merchant (in household furniture) who traced his family to Thomas O’Boyden of Yorkshire. His mother was Irish.

Erl’s statements about his non-indigenous ancestry, by the way, are supported by the APTN historical research.

So all we are left with is Joseph Boyden’s word that the records are wrong  based on his family’s oral history. However, his own mother and her brother, Richard, told APTN that the family’s claim to indigenous ancestry wasn’t based on  oral history, but on the research Boyden did. His uncle (his mother’s brother Richard) told APTN:

“He is the only one who obviously brought this whole situation to the forefront because of his interest in Aboriginal people in Canada, and his writings are certainly Aboriginal. He is really the one who raised this issue to begin with or indicated there was a connection,” said Richard Gossling, 82, who is Boyden’s uncle on Blanche Boyden’s side. “I am sure that Joseph has answers that we certainly don’t have because of his writings and whatever research he did.”

Joseph Boyden’s mother, Blanche Boyden, said her son has the answers.

“I don’t know much myself,” said Blanche Boyden, 86, in a telephone interview with APTN. “We didn’t keep many records in those days…. Joseph proved it and he got the papers and everything so there is no question about it.”

Blanche Boyden said the “key” was her grandmother, Blanche McInnes, who her son discovered to be Indigenous.

“Soon as I gave him the name McInnis, he had no problem with it,” she said.

Except that APTN established that Hector McInnes, Blanche McInnes’s father, wasn’t indigenous at all: he was of Scottish and Irish ancestry. There was one missing record: the ancestry of Hector’s wife, Kate Ellis. APTN couldn’t find records for Kate Ellis’s parents, George and Margaret Ellis. I found the record: it’s in the 1881 census records: they were born in England.

So let’s be clear: this isn’t about an absence of records. The archival records exist: they just don’t support Boyden’s claim to indigenous ancestry. This is not about  “blood”: that’s not why this controversy continues: this is about  honesty.

There are many individuals from indigenous communities who have stepped forward over the past month to report on Twitter that Boyden told them different stories about his background as well. For example, he told an acquaintance of mine from Cape Croker that he was from Wasauksing First Nation; he told the same thing to the editor of Muskrat Magazine. He told a leading Métis writer and lawyer, Chelsea Vowel, that his mother came from Cape Croker (Cape Croker is Saugeen Ojibway and a totally different First Nation from Wasauksing; as an aside, I worked with the Saugeen Ojibway for a decade as their lawyer on  treaty fishing rights).

This article by Jesse Brown in CanadaLand reports only a few of the discrepancies. As blogger Robert Jago said this week, the stories are getting hard to keep track of.

But the claim  I found most troubling was one that occurred during an interview  Boyden had with Peter Mansbridge,  where they talked about the writing process. Boyden told reporter Leslie Stojsic during the camera shoot  that “his ancestors were from the bear tribe (Attignawantan) of the Wendat population.”

The Wendats are commonly often referred to as Huron — these are the people he writes about in The Orenda. But they are an Iroquoian nation, again, totally different from the Ojibway or the Nipmuc peoples.

In the APTN story that questioned his shifting identity, Jorge Barrera quoted from a statement Boyden provided APTN  as follows :”My family is Mukwa Dodem, Bear Clan.” That’s a claim to being  Anishnabe Bear Clan, or Ojibway, not Huron. As one of my indigenous Twitter friends, @redindiangirl pointed out, how can you know your clan if you don’t know your community?

In his most recent press release, Boyden says: “Children don’t go about consciously presenting identities; they just are who they are. And that’s how I was: a white kid from Willowdale with native roots. The Ojibwe family I grew up with in summers on Christian Island still call me cousin or uncle.  The bad poetry I first scribbled as a troubled teen was about searching for my mother’s clan.  For the last 22 years I’ve been a member of a Moose Cree First Nation family, active in their community….”

Spending summers in a First Nation community doesn’t make one indigenous or my daughter could claim to belong to a few different First Nations.

The Tozers, the Moose Cree First Nation family in Northern Ontario that Boyden has long befriended, clearly love the man and consider him family. No one can dispute their strong, abiding friendship; I wish had friends who were as loyal as they are.

But they can’t confer indigeneity on him either. That’s up to the community to decide. Anymore than I could have Australian friends stay with me each year and because we’re very close, decide they’re Canadian.

Following his interview with Boyden this week in the Globe and Mail,  Mark Medley wrote as follows:

But also damning, to many, was the collection of quotes Mr. Boyden had given to the media over the years, which pegged his ancestry as Métis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc. Had he knowingly lied about his heritage?

“Never,” he said. “People are calling it an ‘ever-shifting identity.’ I have not [lied]. I have misspoken one time – well, not one time, a few times.” When asked about the discrepancies in his statements about his ancestry over the years, he replied: “What are the discrepancies?”

I’ve pointed out some of the times he’s “misspoken” and why his interviews this week don’t really answer the hard questions.  Maybe in the future, he’ll provide some clearer answers.


NOTE:  (January 15)  A reader, Kelly T, notes in Comments, below, that I haven’t mentioned  Boyden’s claim to be Métis. I had left that out deliberately, both in the interests of length and also since he retracted that claim in his December Twitter statement, saying he thought the term meant “mixed blood.” This is not unreasonable, as it is a common mistake, although I would note that Boyden wrote a book on Métis leaders Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont.

However, as Kelly T. points out,  in an email to  Métis writer/lawyer Chelsea Vowel,  posted on Twitter, he told Vowel that his mother “was always told there was a Red River connection on her mother’s side.” This is at odds with what his mother and her brother told APTN, which was that they had relied on his research concerning their indigenous ancestry, and that the “key was Blanche Boyden’s grandmother, Blanche McInnes, who [Boyden] discovered to be Indigenous.” According to the 1881 census and APTN’s research, she wasn’t.

In his interview with Candy Palmater, Boyden indicated he used the term “Métis” as the federal government used it some twelve or thirteen years ago. However, Boyden claimed to be Métis in a 2005 Quill and Quire story, in a 2011  Nuovo magazine story,  and  in an interview in  Macleans magazine in 2014. He  also received an honorary degree from Nipissing University in 2009: the press release refers to his Irish, Scottish and Métis heritage.

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Joseph Boyden’s Disputed Status as Indigenous Spokesman and Why it Matters

Late last week, celebrity author Joseph Boyden’s indigenous background was questioned by both Jorge Barrera of the the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and by an indigenous blogger, Robert Jago. The questions they raised created a firestorm of controversy on Twitter. The story hit the mainstream media yesterday, with stories on CTV, the Globe and Mail, and the National Observer, among others.

Boyden has become perhaps the leading Native spokesperson on indigenous issues in Canada. He has been interviewed hundreds of times, and has offered his views, among other things, on reconciliation, on murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls, and on residential schools.  No one in mainstream media, to my knowledge, has ever challenged his authority to speak on behalf of indigenous communities or has asked more than cursory questions about his background.

As part of trying to at least set out why this is a problem, I’d like to explain the controversy, and why it matters.  Let me first clarify that I am not indigenous. My family has Scottish-Irish roots and my ancestors moved to Moose Creek, Ontario in the early 1800s. My father left Moose Creek after the war and later in life, taught in reserve schools in northern Alberta and B.C.

As a lawyer, I specialized in Aboriginal law on the First Nation side. I spent over twenty years working with primarily Ojibway and Mohawk nations and did my LLM and LLD in Aboriginal law and history.  I wrote Lament for a First Nation, which traces the history of the Williams Treaties First Nations back to first contact. I spent the latter part of my legal career hearing cases of the physical and sexual abuse of indigenous children as an adjudicator with the Indian Residential Schools Process.  So while I am an outsider — a settler– I am a relatively well-informed one with close connections to several First Nation communities.

Joseph Boyden has often referred to his native roots by discussing his Ojibway uncle Erl (“Injun Joe”) and his traditional Ojibway ways, including how he lived in a teepee in Algonquin Park. Late last week, Robert Jago, blogging as a host of @indigenousxca, released a series of tweets about Boyden, as well as a video that contained newspaper articles from the 1950s which said “Injun Joe” wasn’t really an Indian.

He included an excerpt from a 1956 Macleans interview  by Dorothy Sangster with Erl Boyden called “The Double Life of Injun Joe.”

In it, Erl Boyden told Sangster  he wasn’t aware of having any native blood, and said he only pretended to be an Indian so he could run his lucrative souvenir business: “Tourists come here and buy armfuls of stuff marked Algonquin Park, they take pictures of what they idiotically believe to be a real Canadian Indian and away they go into the wide blue yonder, happy as larks. Who am I to spoil their fun?”

Shortly after, Jorge Barrera  published his story,  Author Joseph Boyden’s Shape-Shifting Identity. In it, he pointed out how Boyden had at different times referred to being Mi’kmaq, Métis, Ojibway and Nipmuc, which are all very different nations. Despite conducting  exhaustive research into Boyden’s background, including a review of archival materials and contacting a Nipmuc genealogist, Barrera was unable to find a connection.

In response to APTN, Boyden posted a statement on Twitter in which he said he had distant indigenous ancestry: Ojibway from Nottawasaga Beach and Nipmuc from Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He apologized for having referred to himself as Métis, however, saying that he had misunderstood the term to mean “mixed blood.”

He said that he could not recall ever referring to himself as M’ikmaq, but perhaps the interviewers had misheard him when he’d said Nipmuc, which is certainly plausible, as the terms sound similar, and the Nipmuc, a small American tribe in Massachusetts, is not well known in Canada. (Although, according to this article, Boyden was careful to explain to an American interviewer that the M’ikmaq on his father’s side were an East Coast Canadian tribe.)

Boyden also said that the uncle referred to in the APTN story had died before he was born, and knew he was Indian but hid his identity, as was so often the case in the 1940s and 1950s.

I found Boyden’s statement that his uncle Erl knew he was Indian but hid his identity a bit hard to swallow: after all, he lived in a teepee, called himself “Injun Joe,” and wore a war bonnet. It’s a bit like trying to hide the fact you are Jewish by wearing a yarmulke. But I don’t think it matters. Boyden clearly self-identifies as an indigenous person.  And there is the rub.

What I have learned over the years is that self-declaration is one thing, but there is a reciprocal side to it, which is  acceptance by the community with which you self-identify. Otherwise, anyone can claim to be indigenous based on little more than family gossip or wishful thinking.

I have been struggling to think of an analogy, and the closest one I can come to is with respect to religion. I cannot simply decide to be Roman Catholic, for example. There are steps I must go through first. I must be baptized, or the church has to agree to accept me through conversion. Once I am part of that community, I can rely on its ceremonies and its teachings, but I have responsibilities to it as well.

Since Boyden has yet to say something like “great grandmother X was from Y First Nation,” there is so far no indigenous community  that has claimed him.  Tracing one’s roots can be difficult in a world where the colonizers disrupted family ties, pulled children out of homes, scooped them and put them in foster care, and actively severed their ties to their communities. However,  Boyden claims to have those roots; he has simply declined to provide them. As a result, indigenous people are still asking: Who are his people? Unfortunately, the statement he provided on Twitter doesn’t answer those questions.

For those rushing to  Boyden’s defence, I would suggest they exercise a bit of care. We have to listen to what indigenous people are saying.  As settlers, we hold enormous power. We have a responsibility to be cautious before we accord prominence to someone to speak about indigenous issues. As tweeter Tom Fortington said, it’s too much to put the entire burden of accountability on First Nations.

It troubles me, for example, that Boyden described himself in interviews as Métis for years, but now admits that he was wrong and that he didn’t know what the term meant (although he wrote a book about Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont).  There is harm in this, because his misunderstanding was provided a national platform. In another interview, he completely misunderstood what it means to be two-spirited, and people were misinformed because he was mistaken.

I don’t think anyone can question Boyden’s passion or his commitment or his incredible talent or even his good intentions –that’s not the issue.  Perhaps it comes down to respect. We do not respect people by taking away their voices. The First Nations people I met over the decades were always careful not to overstep. If they were asked questions about another nation’s world views or experiences, they deferred to those they considered better-suited to answer them.

According celebrity in such large measure to only one person to discuss  pan-Canadian indigenous issues silences other indigenous voices. And if that one person is mistaken, or lacks authority, or worse, knowledge, we are more likely to misunderstand the things we need to know as we head down the difficult path towards reconciliation.

I will leave you with a Facebook post by Daniel Heath Justice who explains far more eloquently than I can why all of this matters.  It’s a brilliant analysis, perhaps the best one I’ve read so far. It’s one of those indigenous voices I mentioned, shared with permission.

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