An Orenda of honours

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Just in time for New Year’s Eve, author Joseph Boyden received news that rounded out 2015 as a year of enormous accomplishment.

The accolades previously included the position of Honorary Witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and an Indspire Award for the Arts. Now Boyden has completed a hat trick of honours with the news that he would be named to the Order of Canada. It was a complex combination of tributes for an author whose stories routinely deal with Canada’s complicated colonial history, and its residential schools in particular.

The Nation reached Boyden by phone at his part-time home in New Orleans, where he teaches creative writing at a local university. We first asked him whether his relationship with Canada is as complicated as his characters, causing him to laugh.

“Oh, absolutely,” he happily replied. “Why do you think I live in New Orleans?”

Turning serious, Boyden – whose ancestry is mixed Scottish, Irish and Anishnaabe – admitted he enjoys the “geographic and psychic” distance that living part of the year in another country provides him.

“I’m able to pull back and look at this complicated country that has the potential to be something extraordinary,” he said. “I’m always arguing that we’re not there yet, and certainly for the past 10 years under the Conservatives we were really set back. But we can change that.”

Of the news that he had been named to the Order of Canada, he said, “I was taken aback, but really honoured. And also shocked – I’ve still got a lot to do in my career. Still, it’s an incredible honour.”

That accolade was a nice way to end a year that has seen enormous changes in the way Canadians are addressing their colonial history, particularly Indian residential schools. Along with the close of the TRC and the opening of Winnipeg’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the October election of Justin Trudeau (whose Liberal Party Boyden endorsed) brought the end of nearly a decade of rule by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, seen by many as deeply hostile to Indigenous communities and interests.

“Look at what Trudeau has done already,” said Boyden. “I’m not saying it’s perfect, but we’ve got an inquiry being set up into missing and murdered Indigenous women, and we’ve got Trudeau talking about dealing with First Nations on a nation-to-nation level.”

Nonetheless, he cautions against any interpretation that his support for the Liberals is simplistic, or his proclamation of love for Canada any less complicated than the relationships in his novels. After all, his first novel, Three Day Road, was the story of a Mushkegowuk Cree boy abducted from his family by an Indian agent and sent to residential school to have his culture and identity beaten out of him. After being rescued by his aunt and healed on the land with traditional medicine, the boy grows up to fight for Canada in the First World War.

“It’s a complicated relationship,” Boyden said. “I don’t think if anyone reads my work they’ll think everything’s roses, by any means. But surely you always strive to be better in any way you can, both personally and on a bigger level. That’s my view of the world – if it’s not working, how do we make it better?”

Even in the waning years of the Harper government, Boyden said he saw signs of promise emerging from empowered grassroots communities (especially the rise of the Idle No More movement) and the ongoing process of the TRC’s National Events. He believes these have forced non-Indigenous Canadians to confront a history of colonialism and atrocity. (Boyden’s first story about residential schools was published in the 1990s.)

“This is just the beginning,” Boyden said. “I’d compare it to a tide, and the tide has been devastation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people for generation after generation. The tide of destruction has finally reached its peak and is beginning to draw back, and what Canadians are starting to see now, is the detritus on the shoreline as the tide inches back. Now we can see the devastation left – it’s uncovered. We’ve passed the peak of the wrongdoing that colonialism created against our First Peoples, but a tide takes a long time to go up, and a long time to come down.”

Boyden remains hopeful that all Canadians – not just First Nations, Inuit and Métis – will understand that the work of reconciliation, of picking up the pieces left in the wake of the tide, is everyone’s responsibility.

“It was like a tsunami in slow motion over generations,” he said. “Now as it slowly edges out, it’s everybody’s job to rebuild and reconsider and to make amends.”

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