Joseph Boyden on aboriginal issues

’Nothing is ever done in an election year, so 2014 is when the real work has to get done’
Andrew Tolson

A Scotiabank Giller Prize winner and author of the current bestseller The Orenda, Joseph Boyden is one of Canada’s most prominent writers. In his novels, the part-Metis Boyden has always, he says, focused on the “big part played in my life by the small part of my ancestry that is Native.” He’s emerged as an outspoken advocate on Aboriginal issues.

This year is crucial for Native issues because of the federal election in 2015. Nothing is ever done in an election year, so 2014 is when the real work has to get done. I know people say the protests and movements like Idle No More have faded away, but I think it’s like a drum, and right now the drum is just quiet—but it will get louder again soon. And Idle No More is not some kind of scary movement. It began with the federal omnibus bill and its threats to land, water and Native rights, but it was really rooted in the feeling negotiations with the federal government had been going nowhere.

The movement then became so much more. It’s actually very positive, a movement of Native pride Canadians should want to embrace. We have to keep in mind that Aboriginal youth are the fastest-growing population in Canada. Do we want a permanent underclass of people in this country of youth who don’t get the same opportunities and the same responsibilities as other youth?

There are so many First Nations causes coming to a head, so many big decisions that have to be made soon. I’m surprised—bear in mind I’m not speaking for anyone but myself—but I’m always surprised at the way Canadians watch what’s going on in their country but don’t really get involved. It’s high time they did. Because of all the resource development projects in the air, there’s a real chance for a historic new deal between indigenous peoples and Canada.

The biggest issue, as First Nations people know, is that the federal government has to make real movement to open proper negotiations over traditional territory and resources. When we, all Canadians, talk about the economy we can’t separate it from the environment and First Nations deserve a voice in what happens within their traditional territory. I don’t think that, for the most part, Aboriginal people are hostile to development, but it has to be done in a responsible way that listens to their concerns and minimizes danger to their environment. So much of the negotiation, so-called, going on now is still the same as it was 400 years ago: divide and conquer, get one First Nation upriver on side, because they’re seduced by the dollars, and the rest have to follow.

But there are signs of what I want to see, particularly the bands staying unified. There’s always infighting, sure, in something as large as the Assembly of First Nations, 640 bands spread across such different environments, physical and economic. Some bands are really well-off, then there are the ones I know best. The Cree reserves like Attawapiskat in northern Ontario—amazing people in amazing places—are really hardscrabble.

I think the national chief of the AFN, Shawn Atleo, understands that education is absolutely vital and that’s what is going to rise to the top of the table next year. We really need to address—not just talk about, but put real resources into—the abominable record of First Nations kids graduating high school. This has to be done on all levels, including engagement by the First Nations themselves, to change a system that just throws away their talents and enthusiasm. We pay lip service to First Nations issues in this country but we need real dialogue with governments and corporations.

That’s what I hope and expect the focus will be in Canada next year. We are at a moment of crossroads because of the resource projects on the horizon. Both sides will have to engage. Canadians can pretend to ignore Natives, but look what happened at the anti-fracking protest at Elsipogtog [in Rexton, N.B.] in October when we said, “Sorry, but your voice doesn’t matter.” That quickly escalated into violence. The last thing we need is a large group of down and out and angry young people. Why are we not able to go down the right road in this country?

A Native friend told me 2013 opened so well, with the positive drums of Idle No More and ended with RCMP guns trained on Native people and RCMP cars burning. Canadians have to realize we’re treating a huge part of our population in a way that does none of us any good.

I know so many First Nations young people who are so positive, actively searching out their language, their culture, becoming grounded in it. That’s so self-empowering and so necessary. It’s not going away and I think that’s being recognized more and more, and will be especially in the next year. I have faith things can and will come together. The dialogue is not yet broken down here.

As told to Brian Bethune