It is 1919, and Niska, the last Oji-Cree woman to live off the land, has received word that one of the two boys she saw off to the Great War has returned. Xavier Bird, her sole living relation, is gravely wounded and addicted to morphine. As Niska slowly paddles her canoe on the three-day journey to bring Xavier home, travelling through the stark but stunning landscape of Northern Ontario, their respective stories emerge—stories of Niska’s life among her kin and of Xavier’s horrifying experiences in the killing fields of Ypres and the Somme.
Joseph Boyden CM (born October 31, 1966) is a Canadian novelist and short story writer of Irish and Scottish descent. He also claims Indigenous descent, but this is widely disputed. Boyden is best known for writing about First Nations culture. Three Day Road, a novel about two Cree soldiers serving in the Canadian military during World War I, was inspired by Ojibwa Francis Pegahmagabow, the legendary First World War sniper. Boyden’s second novel, Through Black Spruce, follows the story of Will, son of one of the characters in Three Day Road. The third novel in the Bird family trilogy was published in 2013 as The Orenda.
Life and career
Boyden grew up in Willowdale, North York, Ontario, and attended the Jesuit-run Brebeuf College School. The ninth of eleven children, he is the son of Blanche (Gosling) and Raymond Wilfrid Boyden, a medical officer renowned for his bravery, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was the most highly decorated medical officer of World War II.
Boyden studied humanities at York University and received his MFA in Fiction from the University of New Orleans in 1995. He was a professor in the Aboriginal Student Program at Northern College from 1995-1997. He taught at the University of New Orleans from 1998-2010, where he served as writer-in-residence. He was also a lecturer with the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Program from 2013 to 2015.
To date, Boyden has received five honorary doctorates and degrees. His first honorary doctorate in 2009 (Doctor of Letters, honoris causa) was awarded from Nipissing University. In 2013, Boyden was awarded a second honorary doctorate from Algoma University. He was awarded a third honorary doctorate from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University in 2014, a fourth from Trent University in 2015, as well as an honorary degree from Humber College in 2015. Boyden was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013. He sits on the board of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
In 2014 Boyden accepted a commission from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to write a ballet about residential schools in Canada. Boyden’s ballet Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation premiered in 2014 and traveled across the country.
As a public speaker, Boyden regularly addresses Indigenous Canadian, environmental, and mental health issues.
On December 30, 2015, Boyden was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada “for his contributions as an author, who tells stories of our common heritage, and for his social engagement, notably in support of First Nations”.
Boyden was married to author Amanda Boyden from 1995 to 2018. In 2020, Amanda Boyden published a memoir, I Got the Dog, in which she wrote about the circumstances that brought on the end of their marriage.
Joseph Boyden lives in Georgian Bay, Ontario with his wife Laura and their two sons. In 2019, Joseph wrote about coming home and finding new life in Georgian Bay Today magazine. Joseph Boyden is the co-creator of Sweetwater Writers Workshop in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada. Sweetwater Writers Workshop offers one-on-one mentorships, creative writing workshops and hosts retreats. 
Controversies surrounding genealogy and tribal affiliation
Boyden is primarily of Irish and Scottish ancestry. A number of Indigenous writers and researchers came forward to publicly state Boyden did not have the right to speak on behalf of any Indigenous community because he was not a First Nations citizen and ultimately not Indigenous.
Boyden’s claims to Indigenous heritage subsequently became the subject of public dispute when an APTN National News article, “Author Joseph Boyden’s shape-shifting Indigenous identity” by Jorge Barrera, was published December 23, 2016. Barrera’s article investigates Boyden’s past claims of Mi’kmaq, and Métis ancestry as well as his current claims of being Nipmuc and Ojibway. Barrera brought to light facts surrounding Boyden’s uncle Earl Boyden, who went by the name “Injun Joe”. Earl Boyden was an artist in Algonquin Park and was the subject of a 1956 Maclean’s article titled, “The Double Life of Injun Joe”, in which the author reports that he has no “Indian blood.” Barrera’s search of Boyden’s family tree could not locate any Indigenous ancestry. Boyden’s mother, who was briefly interviewed via telephone by Barrera, said that her son was researching her family’s history.
Boyden, who had refused an interview with APTN for the article, responded by Twitter on December 24. Boyden admitted he’d called himself Métis, but only meant the term to mean mixed blood. He continued to assert his maternal Ojibway and paternal Nipmuc roots.
Subsequently, Rebeka Tabobondung, editor of Muskrat Magazine, revealed Boyden had told her he was from the Wasauksing First Nation. Tabobondung, who is from Wasauksing, followed up to find his family connection and could not. However, Boyden’s family did own a private island near the community.
Over the next weeks a series of Indigenous writers, activists and politicians including Wab Kinew, Drew Hayden Taylor Hayden King, Ryan McMahon, and others wrote about the controversy in national media. They asked on what basis Boyden felt he had expertise to represent issues if he was not Indigenous, and asked to whom he was accountable, as some of the positions he was presenting seemed out of line with ongoing work in Indigenous communities.
On January 12, 2017, Boyden gave his first public interviews since the appearance of the APTN article. He personally selected the interviewers who were both friends of his, Mark Medley of The Globe and Mail, and Candy Palmater, a comedian who occasionally works at CBC. Boyden now admitted he had erroneously identified himself as Mi’kmaq in the past. He continued to identify as a “white kid with native roots”, Ojibway on his mother’s side and Nipmuc on his father’s side. Boyden denied that he had relied on his identity as an Indigenous person to popularize his books, and he stated he had only won one literary prize based on heritage and little money. He did, however, apologize for taking up too much of the “air space” and stated he would do less public speaking, thus allowing for Indigenous voices to be heard in the media.
Reaction to the interviews was mixed. Subsequent reports by Canadaland and other researchers turned up inconsistencies in Boyden’s claims and failed to find any native ancestry in Boyden’s background.
In an August 2, 2017 essay in Maclean’s magazine, Boyden stated that he had taken a DNA test which listed “Native American DNA”. For Boyden’s critics, the results mean little, as broad DNA categories do not constitute membership to a nation. According to First Nations genetics expert Kim Tallbear, DNA testing for Native ancestry as a racial category is not scientifically possible, and is often confused with DNA testing that confirms specific familial lineage. Boyden’s ex-wife Amanda Boyden was asked about the DNA testing in a 2020 interview, and described the results as showing “a few drops of indigenous blood from… Greenland”, and stated that Joseph “has no DNA that can be traced to the First Nations people in Canada or the Americas at large”.
The public revelations about Boyden’s roots threatened to impact the release of his new fiction novel. Ojibway filmmaker Lisa Meeches stepped forward to adopt Boyden as a spiritual sibling, saying she was motivated both by her brother’s recent death and a desire to protect Boyden’s work.
During the defense of a lawsuit, Boyden had provided a photocopy of his “status card”, a document appearing to be an ID card for the Ontario Métis Aboriginal Association (also known as the Woodland Métis Tribe). Research by journalist Eric Andrew Gee led to the following comment in the 7 August 2017 issue of the Globe and Mail: “the OMAA … is a complicated and in many ways troubled organization held in low esteem by some prominent Métis Canadians for its legal and financial misadventures over the years, and its lax membership policy that does not require any proof of Indigenous ancestry. Nor does the group provide “status cards” – Indian status can only be conferred by the federal government. The ID Boyden flourishes like a trump in his affidavit is little more than a piece of paper.”