As we saw last week, a small minority of authors dominate the Canadian literature scene, and a tightly connected network of elitist culture-crats keep them in power. But what happens when these operators can’t get out of their own way? What happens when they fail to do their due diligence? They end up getting hosed – and since they hold almost all the power, Canadians as a whole end up getting hosed when they do.

One of the things that upper-crust Canadians don’t like to talk about at dinner parties when they’re showing off for their American friends is the country’s sorry history when it comes to its First Nations. You can craft a narrative that obscures the flaws of the Canadian health care system, but you can’t whitewash what was effectively a genocide. That didn’t stop them from trying, however, and they tried by promoting Joseph Boyden as THE voice of Canada’s First Nations.

Boyden’s claim to fame was that he could be the literary bridge between two cultures. He claimed that he was Metis – which is a catch-all term for someone who is part European and part Indigenous – and people believed him, mostly because he was more interested in writing novels about Native snipers serving during WWI than rehashing some ancient grievance.

While Atwood spoke for the envy and disgust of Canada’s cultural elites towards American cultural and military power, Boyden spoke to their own sense of guilt at what their forefathers had done to the First Nations. If we wanted to understand Canadian First Nations, we didn’t have to leave the comfortable city and drive/fly hundreds of kilometres to the reserves which, in many cases, don’t even have drinkable water. All we had to do was read The Orenda, Boyden’s retelling of the first contact between Natives and colonists in the 17th century. Here is how The Orenda was marketed to us:

How do you revere native life while also exposing its violent, sadistic past? Can the demonization of European colonial powers (the French in this instance) and the cultural genocide they were responsible for exist alongside the possibility that their motives were in essence compassionate? These are dangerous and turbulent waters, but Boyden – himself of native Canadian ancestry – dives in with remarkably vigorous yet lyrical prose […]

The novel is punctuated by acts of unspeakable cruelty and, yes, savagery – human on human, human on animal, and animal on animal. It climaxes in a bloody battle between the Haudenosaunee on one side and the Huron and Jesuits on the other. The ritualistic torture of the captured – euphemistically referred to as “caressing” – is orgiastic. Yet there is a meditative, poetic quality to even the most stomach-churning encounters.

When it emerged that Boyden had slightly more Indigenous DNA than Elizabeth Warren, Canada’s literary establishment weren’t going to admit they’d willingly bought into a feel-good fraud, or let one of their literary heroes be knocked off his pedestal James Frey-style, and so they did what they always do when their credibility is challenged: They circled the wagons and called the investigation into Boyden’s background “a lynching”, while Boyden presented a rambling defence of his actions in Maclean’s, the official news-magazine of Canada’s elite. I will quote from it, because it’s far more remarkable than anything else he’s written:

Uncle Erl died years before I was born, and despite the sentence in the article where the author writes, “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,” I know his truth intrinsically. Just as he did. He knew who he was and he lived his life as openly and proudly as he could despite the strictures of early-20th–century Canada. He was a veteran of the Great War, a restless and gentle and incredibly smart soul who loved and was loved by his communities…..

And thus Joseph Boyden’s exaggerations became part of his own legend, and the honour of Canada’s literary establishment was saved. Because when you hold all the power over all the stories, you never lose the plot.

Next week, we’ll demonstrate the third and final way that the establishment controls the narrative when we look at a wonderfully talented and successful author who appears to check all the right boxes for literary superstardom, but remains underexposed because she doesn’t fit the CanLit model – and we’ll see if we can find a way to subvert these cultural mandarins.


See the previous installments in the series:

Part 1 on Heroes: ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’ Vs Terrance Denby and ‘Sidequest’

Part 2 on “Humour”: The Libertarian Fantasy of ‘Letterkenny’

Part 3 on Graphic Novel Nihilism: The Harsh Truths of ‘Essex County’

Part 4 on Spawn and Wolverine: Banished From The Promised Land: A Tale of Two Canadian Anti-Heroes

Part 5 on Science Fiction Dystopias: Inside Quebec’s – and Canada’s – Replicant Culture

Part 6 on Animation: The Garrison Mentality: More Than Meets The Eye

Part 7 on Pop Music: How To Build A Successful Canadian Musical Act

Part 8 on Anne of Green Gables and The Traumatized Artist: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Treacherous Alpine Path

Part 9 on Avoiding the Serious: Mordecai Richler, Montreal, And Gritty Realism

Part 10 on Southern Ontario Gothic: The Marriage of the Mundane and the Fantastic

Part 11 on Margaret Atwood’s Reign of Terror: Literary Tyranny and The Handmaid’s Tale