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Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden’s indigenous ancestry questioned

A celebrated Canadian author who writes about First Nations heritage and culture is defending himself on Twitter after his ancestry was questioned. Joseph Boyden said he is of "mostly Celtic heritage," but he also has Nipmuc roots on his father's side and Ojibway roots on his mother's. Boyden poses for a portrait in Toronto in an October 20, 2016, file photo.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Award-winning Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden is defending his right to identify as an indigenous person, after an aboriginal publication raised questions about his background and name-callers on Twitter labelled him a "pretendian."

"I once said that, 'A small part of me is Indigenous, but it is a huge part of who I am,'" the Giller Prize-winning author wrote in a statement published on Twitter. "This remains true to me to this day.… I do belong."

The statement came in response to a 2,700-word article probing his background, published two days earlier on the website of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. The article says Mr. Boyden's indigenous heritage "has been an ever shifting, evolving thing. Over the years, Boyden has variously claimed his family's roots extended to the Métis, Mi'kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc peoples." The article does not reach firm conclusions, but says it is difficult to pinpoint where his aboriginal heritage began on either his mother's or father's sides of the family.

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That article appears to be part of a broader debate over who may identify as indigenous. "There's a robust social phenomenon in our society at the moment whereby white Canadians with 200-and-300+-year-old Indigenous ancestry are claiming to be Indigenous," Darryl Leroux, a sociology professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said in an e-mail to The Globe. Or as he tweeted, citing the APTN article about Mr. Boyden, "Does limited Indigenous ancestry (i.e., 17/18th century) = Indigenous identity today?"

The APTN article begins with an account of a Maclean's report from the 1950s on an uncle of Mr. Boyden who went by the nickname "Injun Joe" and sold indigenous wares in eastern Ontario, though "he hasn't a drop of Indian blood." The article also cites genealogical research from ancestry.ca, and published descriptions of Mr. Boyden's background in news articles published since 2005 by Quill and Quire, The Globe and Mail and others.

Separately, a Montreal entrepreneur, Robert Jago, published a video while guest-hosting an indigenous Twitter account last week in which he mocks Mr. Boyden's identity as an indigenous person. In a published article Saturday on the website Canadaland, he likens Mr. Boyden to Grey Owl, a noted 20th-century Canadian author of British birth who turned out to be a "native impersonator." Mr. Jago called Mr. Boyden "a darling of Non-Native Canada" who "drowns out other indigenous voices."

Mr. Boyden, 50, won the Giller Prize in 2008 for Through Black Spruce, part of a trilogy that began with Three Day Road, about two Cree soldiers in the First World War. Last year he was named to the Order of Canada. Governor-General David Johnston cited his contributions as an author and his "social engagement, notably in support of First Nations."

In his four-paragraph Twitter statement, Mr. Boyden says he is partly to blame for confusion over his indigenous identity, because he has used the term Métis, though he doesn't trace his roots to the historic Red River settlement in Manitoba, where the term has been most commonly used. (A Supreme Court ruling on Métis rights this year said the term can refer to the community in Red River or be used as a general term for anyone with mixed European and aboriginal heritage.)

Mr. Boyden said he is from a "mixed blood background of mostly Celtic heritage, but also Nipmuc roots from Dartmouth, Massachusetts on my father's side and Ojibwe roots from Nottawasaga Bay traced to the 1800s on my mother's side." He said he doesn't believe he has ever called himself Mi'kmaq, but that in interviews some may have misheard Nipmuc as Mi'kmaq. Nipmuc refers to Algonquian people from the northeastern United States.

He drew on his uncle Erl, who was featured in Maclean's as "Injun Joe," to explain why he insists on being public about his indigenous identity: Erl knew his roots but denied them, he said in his Twitter statement.

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"This was common practice in the 1940s and 1950s. I don't believe anyone should ever be made to feel shame in their identity, or to feel as if they are being prosecuted for speaking up proudly for themselves and for past generations who couldn't or wouldn't."

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