In 2017 the Canadian literary community was roiled by the news that popular novelist Joseph Boyden (Three Day Road, Through the Black Spruce) had significantly overstated his Native ancestry. Boyden had been a prominent national voice on Aboriginal topics, until investigators from a Native TV network aired findings which showed the author was, in fact, mostly Celtic. “I fear that I’ve become a bit too big, one of the go-to people when it comes to Indigenous issues in this country,” he eventually admitted. “A small part of me is Indigenous, but it’s a big part of who I am.” L’affaire Boyden tells us much about contemporary politics and culture – including much we might not want to know.
There is an established assumption, first of all, that some classes of people are so vulnerable that any artistic expression credited to any of their members deserves extra attention from outsiders. The canon is full of dead white males, goes the reasoning; the relatively rare females and persons of color who write, paint, compose or film must be singled out and celebrated, thus helping to redress social wrongs of the past and promote social progress in the present. This belief – manifested in public grants, academic curricula, and other official programs – has now been around long enough to be exploited. It’s not that Joseph Boyden cynically made up a nonexistent personal heritage so that he could cash in on whatever handouts were available to him, but that an entire industry of publishers, publicists, and critics were complicit with Boyden in emphasizing and exaggerating his Native background in order to burnish his reputation as a special talent meriting special coverage and special sales figures. No one, probably least of all Boyden himself, really set out to fool anybody else, but the exciting-new-spokesman-for-an-underrepresented-group angle, once it was put forward in the reviews and the book stores, was too successful to refute.
It’s also important that Boyden “identified” as Native, a verb which has lately been freighted with extra meaning. Whereas Toni Morrison never had to identify as a Black woman, other categorizations require an active effort on the part of the identified. Ethnicity isn’t always apparent, of course. Yet when being part of a marginalized ethnicity is something that one needs to explain to others, rather than a self-evident quality others have already perceived, the marginalization seems less real (this is why we have the awkward designation “visible minority”). Discrimination is certainly a problem when it’s meted out by discriminators. When it’s sought by discriminatees, it’s not quite the same.
Joseph Boyden, to use another uncomfortable term, could pass as an Anglo-Canadian, in a way that other famous Native people (say, actor Adam Beach, hockey player Jordin Tootoo, or singer Buffy Sainte-Marie) likely couldn’t. His case recalls that of Rachel Dolezal, head of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) until 2015, when family members came forward to reveal that, despite her dreadlocks, darkish complexion, and avowed Black identity, she was actually Caucasian. Here again, we have for so long considered particular populations as handicapped by history – and therefore take pains to compensate for the imbalance – that in some contexts being underprivileged has turned into a strange kind of upper hand. At least as defined by Joseph Boyden and his compassionate but credulous readership, identity is becoming like power: if you have to say you have it, you don’t.
Postscript: A virtual replay of this episode occurred in late 2020, when Canadian actress and filmmaker Michelle Latimer was found to have falsely claimed an Aboriginal heritage. The strongest outrage came from the Native community itself, over a white person appropriating a minority group’s status, and all the extra attention, sympathy, and government funding that goes with it. But leaving aside the murky issues of genealogy and biology in a society where most people can trace an eclectic range of forefathers, unasked was the question of why and how First Nations ancestry (real or alleged) has become so valuable within the artistic professions. For a history routinely described in terms of suffering and injustice, being Aboriginal today seems to confer a unique kind of reward. Perhaps the problem is less the misrepresentations of Joseph Boyden and Michelle Latimer as it is the fixation on racial purity that characterizes, and contradicts, the orthodoxy of anti-racism.