History Repeated

Joseph Boyden is baffled by Canadians’ political apathy

by Dee Hobsbawn-Smith

Joseph Boyden - photo by Bryan McBurney

booksJoseph Boyden: The Orenda
Thursday 16
University Of Regina

“We’re amazing at not learning from our past mistakes,” said novelist Joseph Boyden during a recent interview. “The First World War became a mythology, the birth of a nation, when we came together. Historically, that’s what we hear, that founding, our country birthed by fire. Canadians are still very interested in that.

“And now we have [Prime Minister] Harper, who drums the idea of Canada as a warlike nation, shouting at Russia. It’s amazing that we often choose bad leadership that leads into somewhere we shouldn’t be going.”

Boyden is in Saskatchewan this October for several events, including a Regina reading of his award-winning recent book The Orenda and a university book club meeting in Saskatoon to discuss his first novel, Three Day Road, in recognition of the centennial of the beginning of the First World War. Two of that novel’s principal characters are based on renowned WWI Ojibwa sniper Francis Pegahmagabow, the warrior who did not receive a warrior’s welcome on his return to Canada at the end of the war.

“All the promises were taken away again. He was not even given a loan by the Indian Agent to raise six horses, he was [thought of as] too much of an animal,” said Boyden, “even though he was one of the great soldiers. That warrior spirit was found again after the people had been emasculated for so long.

“I step back and look at Harper, and I’m gobsmacked that Canadians aren’t up in arms,” he said. “Only the native population is speaking up, with Idle No More. Harper is taking away the power of scientists to speak, muzzling them, and no one else in Canada is saying ‘What?’ Maybe Canadians are too comfortable with the tarsands insanity, and that giant oil conglomerates, which aren’t even nationalized, are controlling us.”

Boyden, who has resided for 20 years in New Orleans (a city he’s repeatedly called ‘a banana republic of the United States’) with his wife, the writer Amanda Boyden, had just returned from a memorial service marking the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Living in New Orleans, at a distance from Canada, gives him the neutrality to look more objectively at his home country as well as life in the U.S.

Things haven’t changed so much since World War One, he suggested.

“It’s too brutal, what the U.S. did — and we helped — in Afghanistan and Iraq and with ISIS. We are not learning from past mistakes, allowing ourselves to end up in, and create, horrible situations. Living in the States, watching the warbirds that started the troubles with the Bush era, is insanity. Now Obama is picked on because we stirred up this nest and need to do something to right it.”

Despite having a famous father who was a decorated military physician, and close relations who are soldiers, Boyden said bluntly, “I’m no warrior.” He did call himself a “mutt,” referring to his ancestry of Scottish, Irish and Anishinaabe blood.

“I’m one of 11 kids — if you have a big ego, they think you’re an asshole, and I don’t want that,” he said. “In New Orleans, there are no paparazzi standing around, but I have fun in Canada when someone recognizes me. In a funny way, I’m distanced [from being a well-known Canadian writer].

“It hasn’t changed what I want to write; my native side had to be addressed first. I think [my writing] will always be about Canada; maybe what’s coming is writing about Canada’s relationship with the States.”

About his father, who died young, Boyden said simply, “I’d have liked more time with him. We had a 40-foot wooden cruiser, [and] I’d have liked more time sailing around Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe with him. He was no angel — a difficult, complicated person — and there’s lots of him in me.


Joseph Boyden will read from his acclaimed historical novel The Orenda — about the last years of the Huron confederacy in the mid-17th century — at the University of Regina’s Education Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. A book sale and signing follows. Free admission.

2014-10-16