Keep Telling Their Stories, Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden, author. Also, a far better writer than I ever will be, much better looking, and incredibly full, wavy head of hair. Despite my relative shortcomings, I choose not to character assassinate him, unlike the assholes who did so earlier in the year.


I was angered at the public assault on Joseph Boyden earlier this year, but I couldn’t contain my contempt for his detractors well enough to render a sensible, expletive-free post at the time. It was completely senseless; an out-of-nowhere campaign to tarnish a man’s reputation and douse a career focused on telling the stories of Canada’s indigenous people to the widest audience possible. I hope those responsible were read the riot act by elders in their communities for their slanderous mischief, which invited such negative attention upon the community of indigenous rights advocates.  

For those not familiar with the issue, Joseph Boyden is a highly acclaimed Canadian writer of books whose protagonists are indigenous. His books have won national awards and garnered him a lot of attention as an advocate of indigenous rights in Canada. My favourites among his repertoire are Three Day Road and The Orenda. They are highly recommended reading, whether you care specifically to read books with indigenous protagonists or not. They are stories about people that are phenomenally well-told. 

At the beginning of this year some prominent folks from the indigenous community took issue with Joseph Boyden’s profile as such a fierce advocate for indigenous rights. The problem in their minds, as far as I could tell, is that Boyden isn’t one hundred percent indigenous and, as such, he shouldn’t have been so vocal in his advocacy. I could never really understand the logic behind their grievance with Boyden, but I imagined they were trying to suggest it would have been better if only fully indigenous people were so adamant in their advocacy for indigenous rights; that only fully indigenous people ought to have a public profile as indigenous rights advocates. Or something like that. 

On the same logic I imagine they are fuming that Gord Downie of iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, and as blue-blooded a white guy as it gets, has become such a champion of indigenous rights. I say this reluctantly as a black man (with a white man’s mind), but white folks listen more attentively when a prominent member of their own community speaks to them with an eye to moral persuasion. Certainly, experiential voices are more authentic, but when you are fighting to win over a slice of the finite moral landscape among the white throngs, all voices allied in the fight are helpful. It is quite clear to those not driven by seething rage that Boyden was using his profile to help in these efforts, not to steal a spotlight away from others in the fight. 

Boyden always maintained he was of mostly Celtic blood with indigenous ancestry somewhere in his family tree. In Canada, the English tried to exterminate this country’s indigenous people and for most of our history, folks who could pass for White were not waving flags to show their pride at having mixed ancestry. Boyden’s story of a lost, mixed heritage is a common story in Canada. My heritage is the same (though the lost ancestry in my case is black American). At an early age, when Boyden discovered his own indigenous ancestry, instead of hiding it he embraced it. He’s made a career and become a public figure thanks to that early act of embracing his indigenous heritage. Other than Boyden’s notoriety, this is a fairly pedestrian reality in Canada. I have a fair-skinned, auburn haired friend I’ve know for thirty years who just found out she has Metis in her ancestry. 

It seems for a small faction of resentful figures Boyden’s success and notoriety was a pill too bitter to swallow given their work for the cause. So, they called him a fraud, a poser, accused him of shape-shifting in a head-dress for publicity and cash. The insinuation, although not stated, was that his success came at the cost of a real indigenous person’s success, which is completely absurd. It was this country’s version of the “birther issue.” Except the figure under attack wasn’t a would-be political oppressor vying for the most powerful political office in the land. Boyden is an artist and vocal champion of indigenous rights. Those responsible for stirring this pot seem like a petty lot, more angry that Boyden gets to go to all the good parties than anything else. It was a sad, pointless row; one clearly rooted in professional resentment. 

I am glad Boyden has decided to respond in his own words, and I hope it puts an end to the shenanigans to sandbag him. I also hope the sordid affair has done nothing to discourage Boyden from avidly pursuing his next project, and the other projects delving into the lives of the indigenous subjects he has in store for us down the road. I and countless others anxiously await these for years to come. On that point, I do wish Boyden would stop being such a do-gooder for indigenous causes and stick exclusively to writing his extraordinary books so we wouldn’t have to wait as long between each project. 

It struck me then, and it still does now, that this whole ordeal was a product of professional jealousy. It had very little to do with people trying to air a legitimate grievance of a wrong done to the community. It is beyond reprehensible that the target of the savage attack is an artist and advocate, not some corporate or political cretin throwing their power around to the detriment of the indigenous community. It casts those responsible for the sabotage campaign in such a poor light. I will never read Robert Jago again without thinking about how petty his attempt to sandbag Boyden was, which is tragic because Mr Jago has, in other cases, had things to say which need to be heard and taken seriously. 

Boyden’s books have been responsible, in my own case, for helping to identify with indigenous voices because I just don’t have any other way of doing so. I have no indigenous blood, nor do I have close friends or family who are indigenous. It is difficult for me to obtain more than a superficial glimpse of life through their eyes. Paying attention to the news or media does not allow us to connect in more than a shallow way to an identity we do not share. There is always an agenda and the view is too easily tainted by our own intellectual filter. 

Stories are always a better way to subtly shift the view than is canvassing the news with an eye to empathy. Stories more succinctly hold up a mirror to ourselves; the identification with a marginalized protagonist makes it far more difficult to deny the humanity of those disenfranchised in our real lives, which perpetuates systemic barriers to their progress. 

As a mode of throwing the moral depravity of the oppressors in their face, a story humanises the oppressed and makes it more difficult for the reader to walk away from that encounter and still repudiate their existence. You read a story about a homeless man and it becomes difficult to simply breeze past them as you take a break at work the next day. It is a far more effective way of getting people to recognize the many wrongs we are abetting by our quiet indifference than is the tack of using public admonishments or finger wagging to stir our moral compass into proper alignment. Accusations and blame, even if deserved, rarely provoke the intended effect of opening consciousness among the dominant group because the mode of discourse, that of polemic, is too hard for most egos to bear. The guilt or animosity triggered by the condemnation hardens a mind, puts it on the defensive, and for that reason it is a less effective way to change the view about certain pernicious social realities.  

This is the real power of fiction and other narrative accounts, especially where the subject is the marginalized, forgotten, or disenfranchised in a society. Having readers living the lives of a well-crafted, disenfranchised protagonist allows them to experience the pain and suffering of another human being whose tragic experiences are difficult to imagine. That their marginalized existence is a by-product of structures in our society becomes evident, and is undeniable, as we see them come crashing down upon a novel’s protagonist. 

If done well, and done right, stories are the truest way to identify with those who do not share our own identity. Stories come to us, straight into our hearts, bypassing our intellect, and because of that, the tragedies or injustices in the lives they depict are less apt to be so easily dismissed. They will resonate. Boyden’s stories and characters centre on the issues and lives of this country’s indigenous people, and they have resonated. 

As a colonizer there is no better way for me to know what the indigenous fight is about than to read their stories so I can truly understand on a deep level that it isn’t just a political issue, it is a real battle for a way of life. I have a better sense of what that way of life is because of Boyden’s stories. Yes, there are other voices, other stories, and other storytellers – Boyden never claimed to be the lone voice for the community. Those eager to attack his character made that claim on his behalf; perhaps those among the colonizers appointed him as a spokesperson. That is what we do. We love our caricatures, our reductions. 

The blame for that does not lie with Boyden. If there was concern that Boyden’s profile was monopolizing the dialogue the effort should have instead been aimed at pointing us to other stories and left at that. I would have greatly accepted the gift. When they attacked Boyden, a fierce advocate for indigenous issues, I stopped listening and lost plenty of respect for those who otherwise advocate for a just cause. They need to focus on what they legitimately seek and leave ego-centric personal grievances out of the public domain because it has not served they or the community for whom they advocate well at all. 

Canadian Racism On Trial

fingers-pointed-at-the-different-one

Because I’m a black man who isn’t living under a rock I’ve been forced to think a lot about racism lately. Most days I feel relatively lucky to live in Canada where cops don’t regularly shoot unarmed folks who look like me, or anyone else, for that matter. A year ago, we turfed our former Prime Minister, whose dalliance with race-baiting chauvinism cost him the election.

That said, every time an unarmed black man gets shot in the US my social media newsfeeds are littered with articles posted by Canadian white guys, almost always Baby Boomers, flatly denying the possibility race had any part to play in the incident. They unwittingly re-post videos and “news” clips fashioned by media organizations they may not realize are fronts for white supremacist groups or organizations funded for the specific aim of racism-denial.

These folks should be deeply concerned they are in league with avowed racists. They would be appalled to learn they are instrumental in the propaganda campaign waged to taint the backgrounds of the deceased and sustain the narrative that black men deserve to die in the street because they are thugs. Even if Canadian whites are unaware the messages they champion are crafted by racist organizations, the very idea they watched a video or read an article compiled by a white supremacist and said “Yeah!” should give them reason to pause for self-reflection.

carla-williams-scooped-up-and-sent-to-denmark

Carla Williams, “scooped up” from her parents as a child and shipped off to “more suitable” parents in the Netherlands.

Crimes committed by individuals whose parents are from a Muslim country are immediately touted as “Islamic terrorist” events by the media. Such a rendering by what is supposed to be an authoritative source of information makes it easy for many white folks to adopt this narrative as truth. For the next several days moderate Muslims are forced to unleash a media and PR campaign to appease suspicions that all Muslims are terrorists in waiting. Whenever these attacks happen my newsfeeds are festooned with bogeyman caricatures far too many sub-urban white North Americans believe reveal something axiomatic about all Muslims.
These narratives randomly pilfer the last fifteen years of world history to not so subtly suggest all the responsibility for the violence in the world rests at the feet of Islamic terror organizations and Muslims alike. In so doing, they have conveniently forgotten the centuries of history right up to the present, or the proxy wars in the decades during the Cold War. They missed the memo about the warplanes and bombs we and our allies have dropped all over the world.

Here is the bad news: people die when the high-tech fighter jets and cruise missiles, which are the toys we Western folks fight with, deliver their mega-tonnes of explosive ordinance. Women. Children. Arabs. Muslims. Human beings. Dead. At the hands of “Christian bombs” if you will. Death can’t be stopped where bombs are concerned. I am not arguing here about the foreign policy merits of these actions. I am arguing the belief that only Muslims have killed people in the last fifteen years is absolutely ridiculous.

ms-st-louis

The MS St Louis arrived at a Canadian port of call in 1939 with 908 Jewish passengers fleeing the Holocaust. They were denied entry, sent back to Europe and, it was later learned, a quarter of them died in German death camps during World War II.

Every time a Canadian news agency publishes reports on crimes involving blacks or Aboriginals, after about two hours they have to close the comment threads. Some news organizations have simply stopped allowing comments on these stories. Why would that be, one wonders? Here’s a hint, it’s not because their servers are overwhelmed by shows of support from sympathetic trolls.

But our cops are not shooting blacks. We’ve been relatively nice to immigrants of colour since we began letting them in about twenty five years ago. This followed a period of racist immigration legislation that allowed only Western European immigration. Muslims who wear the hijab haven’t been harassed or subjected to random attacks like they have in the US. We let in 30,000 Syrian refugees, which is a drop in the hat given the four and a half million languishing throughout Europe and the Middle East. We don’t have cretins like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen in our mainstream politics. All true. So, racism isn’t a problem in Canada.

Bullshit.

Let us not forget, our Prime Minister did try his hand at bigotry in the last election. He knew that would play with a large segment of Canadian society, just like he knew his snitch line for “barbaric cultural practices” (code for “living like a Muslim” ) would be a hit with the same segment. Thankfully, it was not a large enough segment – just. During that same election, the campaign signs of candidates with Muslim-sounding names were defaced in one of the WASPiest communities in Southern Ontario.

More recently, a leadership candidate in the same party of the ousted Prime Minister posited a solution to appease what she accepts at face value are rational fears of would-be immigrants. Smart folks aren’t supposed to be inclined to this sort of rhetoric, but she is a medical doctor. The intelligence required of her profession makes her race-baiting a little more difficult to dismiss. When uttered from a person of her stature the air of legitimacy is cast upon what is clearly a racist idea, and bigotry becomes normalized.

The good doctor has written a prescription to rid Canada of “undesirable” immigrants: she proposes they pass a “values test” – whatever that is. Surely she should have run some more tests of her own, in particular to identify the underlying causes of this widespread illness for which “fear of others who don’t look like us” is a symptom. I think she would find a case of mass hysteria and would do better to hand out buckets of Ativan to calm everyone  down.

komogata-maru-arrivals

In 1914, the SS Komagata Maru landed arrived on the west coast of Canada carrying 376 passengers, all British subjects from India of Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim backgrounds. Of these, 26 were allowed to enter Canada and the others were sent back. They were treated by the British as political agitators upon arrival back in India and arrested for the entirety of the First World War. Canada has officially apologized for this incident.

Canadians are a little too quick to blow their wads while mentally masturbating to the image of our post-racial Shangri-La. This delusional narrative is so easily maintained when we have countless vulgar, crass Archie Bunkers to the south to wield as our benchmark. Certainly, we have never had characters like Donald Trump gaining much political traction. Our political class hasn’t fashioned countless racist dog-whistles to divide disenfranchised whites from blacks and passed them off as legitimate political discourse. But why should the country where so many wish to simply forget slavery ever existed be heralded as the Canadian standard?

We dress our racism up a little nicer because our establishment, which is still one hundred per cent white, are the progeny of the tee-totallers across the pond. England was far more refined in institutionalizing racism. They had an aristocracy and class system that is only now loosening its ability to determine social outcomes. They shipped soldiers to loot the planet for Mother England in far-flung places like the near east and south Asia, wielded their guns at the brown, black, and Asian mobs for centuries, and plundered the lands of their tin, rubber, spices, gold, lumber, and free labour. They banned slavery because they didn’t need it; they had naval fleets who could subjugate the dark hordes and noble savages without having to cart them like chattel back to England. There wouldn’t have been the room to put them up, anyway.

We Canadian colonial upstarts tore a page right out of the English playbook. We didn’t proceed like the Americans: gunning down, marching, and starving the Indigenous people to kill them off and steal their land. Instead, we sent them off to reserves in the middle of nowhere – where it was easy to forget about them – and launched a campaign of cultural genocide upon their young’uns. Those are not my words, but that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which studied the issue of Residential Schools. One assumes that this solution seemed like a perfectly legitimate, naturally laudable, resolutely Canadian passive-aggressive way of rooting out the “Indian problem.”

In Canada there are First Nations reserves that have not had running water for twenty years. Many others living on reserves have to boil their water most of the year. We are only now learning more of the sordid details of another systematized attempt to eradicate Indigenous people by way of the “Sixties scoop.” Beginning in the 1960s and continuing on through the nineteen eighties indigenous children were seized by government social workers from their “unfit” biological parents and placed in foster or adoptive homes of whites who, one presumes, were obviously fit because they were white. In recent revelations, we have learned some of the “scooped up” indigenous children were sent to adoptive parents in the United States and Europe, and that some of these parents paid fees to adoption agencies. It was effectively the Canadian government trafficking in indigenous children to offset the costs of social welfare.

chinese-head-tax-receipt

Through the 1880s thousands of Chinese labourers were brought from China to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. They were paid a third of what their co-workers were paid, and when the job was done, the Canadian government ensured they would not stay by imposing a head tax to immigrate, which they couldn’t pay because they were paid exploitation wages. A formal Canadian apology and redress for survivors was made in 2006.

We did not teach several generations of Canadians – mine included – a goddamned thing about any of this treatment of indigenous people. I can see why. It’s a bloody national disgrace. When my child was seven, he had already learned more about this country’s indigenous peoples than I or the generations before did in our entire public school tenure. He shakes his head at the truculence of my generation and those before in resisting genuine measures to remedy decades upon decades of tacit wrong-doing.

These shameful tales are the putrefying cherry on top of a festering bowl of racist history, Canadian-style. Historical incidents like the Komagata Maru, the Chinese head tax imposed to bar the Chinese labourers who built this country’s most vital engine of economic growth – the Canadian Pacific Railroad – and the lowest acceptance of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust of any nation in the world, are tragic examples in the sordid legacy of Canada’s racism.

As a black man I can attest to countless hurtful experiences of overt racism directed at me because of my skin colour, especially in my youth, when I was emotionally ill-equipped to deal with them. Every once in a while something happens to dredge up these experiences and it is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Lately, it isn’t the incidents happening in the United States picking at the wounds. These are terrible events to witness, but they do not speak directly to racism in the Canadian context. Obviously, this has tempted countless white people here to dismiss the racial antecedents of these tragic events. It is that tendency, and the way it is enacted, which does speak to racism in this country.

This deplorable phenomenon has re-opened some of  my own racial wounds, especially in the past two years. I have been subjected to an unceasing campaign of denial of the role race played in countless media stories of the day where non-white “others” are victims of crime. Such strident denials without having any apprehension of facts points to the bigotry within anyone who touts them, whether they are aware of this or not. The sharing of racist media publications veers very close to propagating hate speech. Anyone engaged in it should consider that.

The articles suggesting the unarmed black men gunned down by police in the US deserved to die, which some of my white social media friends have been posting on their pages, incite hostility and violence toward me in their excusing of that conduct. In so doing, they perpetuate the idea that I and those who look like me are incessant thugs, a stance which is deeply offensive. It is irrelevant if that is not what was intended. It is the consequence. People should consider that possibility before they share fake media stories about racially-charged events, lest they be mistaken for a racist.

I understand many people who aren’t minorities do not see the racism in their views or remarks; many don’t intend to espouse racism. For many of these folks, I believe their desire to not intentionally spread bigotry is genuine. I grew up a white guy with a black man’s skin. I know exactly how it is. When I was a kid, I went out for Hallowe’en in black face, for crying out loud!

This Western culture of ours, for a long, long time has incessantly touted itself as superior to everyone and everything else in the world. This isn’t to suggest we’re the only ones hailing our exceptionalism. Tribalism, pride, and vainglory are the most irresistible of human frailties. But I didn’t live in those other places, and can’t comment on how they executed their brand of chauvinism. I am only experienced in the dodgy end of white, Western bigotry. What I saw was how we lampoon and demean other races and creeds for the sheer fact of their difference alone. Most often, the sub-text is that otherness in itself is something to be feared and derided; it is never to be taken simply as a sociological fact, it is always in need of our judgment as to the degree of its implied inferiority.

This is why, if you are a white person living in a Western country, and genuinely desire not to be a racist, when a minority tells you something is racist, don’t argue that point as if you could possibly know what you’re talking about. Just listen. If it’s your words or deeds, stop being so defensive, own up, and say you’re sorry. To point it out isn’t to posit myself as a paragon of morality; I am no less likely to possess my culture’s chauvinist, oppressive biases than anyone else. It isn’t to suggest white folks are the spawn of Satan. It is merely to suggest the obvious; that white people can, at times, say or do something that is racist without realizing it because they’ve never really had to endure it – not in this society. They grew up in the dominant group.

The way many other race-baiting ideas are casually shared by some makes it obvious that a certain segment of white folks simply don’t give a shit because, let’s face it, they’re among the dominant group, right? These are the unabashed bigots who are tired of the political correctness police; they don’t want to have to stop and think about what they say or do in respect of those who are different. They don’t want to be called out for blurting out bigoted comments that spring into their mind. It’s too tiring to have to care about that; the others should adapt to our ways because they’re better anyway. If minorities don’t like it they can go back to where they came from. Fair enough, but I was born here, as were many black, brown, and other folk. HERE is where we came from.

To the regular Joes who are unabashed bigots I suggest that, since the option of deporting minorities or harassing them until they leave isn’t going to bear fruit, your energy is best directed at finding the real source of the insecurity and fear beneath your racism, and deal with that. Here’s a hint: the filthy rich, corporate guys in suits. They are messing with your mind.

On the one hand, they tell the regular Joes they are all entitled to the American Dream embodied in the wealth and privilege they and their corporate buddies enjoy, while on the other, they are doing everything behind closed doors to stack the system against Joe’s efforts to do just that. Instead, they reap all the spoils and point the finger at the minorities, the socialists, or the Muslims when Joe is struggling in the system they created to screw everyone except themselves. Racism is just another oligarch’s ploy to have Joe steeped in fear so his eyes are off a ball he never gets to touch, which helps Joe to buy into the lie that the game isn’t rigged. He’s been duped by his so-called white brethren.

Because the charlatans who have you hoodwinked are white like you, the fables they tell about how the black, brown, and heathen hordes have their hands in your pockets – how it is their presence which threatens your way of life – are impossible to resist. There is no pagan idol better than xenophobia and racism to keep the corporate courtesans enriched and empowered to everyone else’s detriment. With the serfs divided, fighting among themselves, fighting foreign ghosts, fighting everything but the system created to completely disempower them, the aristocrats are free to plunder from the coffers of the white tribe indefinitely.

The whole thing is sad and infuriating. It is the elephant between the lines that few are willing to acknowledge exists as the sub-text to many political divides in my country. It does temper my optimism for the future; makes me a little less inclined to believe my efforts to succeed will bear fruit in a society where pointless, atavistic, disenfranchising racism abounds. Such is the psychological torment systemic racism inflicts. It is hard for some minorities attuned to this ugly facet of their existential reality, to “pull up their socks” when, confronted with a racial slur here or a racially-motivated roadblock there, it seems like so many are intent on pulling them down.

There is plenty of evidence to disabuse anyone of the idea there is cause to celebrate Canada’s post-racial social order; that we’ve ascended the heights of a racially harmonious Pollyanna. The xenophobic, bigoted articles written by and posted by white Canadians on my social media feeds, the continued indifference to the plight of indigenous Canadians – despite all we now know about their lot – and the earnest propagation of racist dog-whistles by educated, well-esteemed white Canadians gives the lie to any claim this country is without a racism problem.

The one positive light going forward is that the bulk of those who champion the chauvinist ideas endemic in Western culture, the ones that fuel full-fledged racism, are a dying breed. These ideas, even if still prevalent, are not the only ideas the youth in our culture have been exposed to. Because they are fortunate to live in a world where technology gives them access to a plurality of ideas, they are less likely to be so strongly conditioned to racism, at least in its Western form, which gives me hope.

My wish would be that this problem fizzles out with those who were responsible for further instilling, or doing nothing to deter, these racial toxins in our culture; that those among my generation who continue to wave that flag will soon be outnumbered and marginalized by the more open-minded among the generations below. One can dare to dream. That said, we mustn’t rest on our laurels because too much damage has already been done, and we need to start healing ourselves of our racism now, so there are no more victims.

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This is the cover art for Secret Path, a project by Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie. It is a multi-media telling of the true story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve-year old boy who died in 1966 while trying to walk home from the residential school to the home he had been snatched from 400 miles away.