Joseph Boyden identity debate mirrors appropriation of women’s voices and spaces

Photograph: Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press via CBC
Image: Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press via CBC

As a founding member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN), I am fascinated by recent conversations about Joseph Boyden. I love that Indigenous peoples are asserting the importance of lived experience, growing up in poverty, and facing relentless racism in every space. It’s so offensive that one can simply self-identify, benefit from that identity, and appoint themselves as our spokesperson — a neocolonial practice.

This is the “new colonialism” — the assumption that Indigenous women are incapable of speaking in our own voice continues to be pervasive. I’ve come across quite a few of these individuals in my time — the ones that steal our voices. Boyden and his ilk continue to be the perfect fit for the token positions that exist in mainstream institutions, allowing them to claim they are being inclusive. In Boyden’s case, he claims awards while the Marilyn Dumonts and the Katari Akiwenzie-Damms of the Indigenous world struggle to be heard.

What I’m wondering is: why is it acceptable for men to do the same thing Boyden is being criticized for by claiming our sex? Not only can men now claim to be women, but they are allowed — even encouraged — to force women to accept them into our women-only spaces. And they appoint themselves as our spokespeople even though they have not grown up with sex discrimination, sex-based oppression, and female experiences. Mainstream society accepts that anyone who identifies as a woman can appropriate our voice and, in the process, they are able to erase the category of “women and girls” based on the claim there is “a spectrum of genders.” As my elders often ask, “How outrageous can it get?”

So Joseph Boyden says he’s an Indian now. Does that put us on a spectrum of racial identities? Luckily for me, my Indigenous identity is constitutionally protected. My sex, however, is not. So where does that leave us Indigenous women when it comes to the National Inquiry? In our current world where there is no respect for our identity as women, there’s little chance that the Inquiry can spearhead much change. In most of our traditional pre-contact cultures, women were revered as life-givers, matriarchs, and community leaders in our clan systems, and that has to be upheld if the Inquiry is to see any success.

When it comes to the National Inquiry on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, the government has stacked the deck in favour of “Indigenous families,” thereby ensuring that sex or gender is eliminated from the conversation. Yet, that’s where the heart of the problem is. They want to look at root causes? Why not start with the sexism and misogyny that they colonized with?

Patriarchy continues to be imposed upon our communities through the Indian Act, our governance structures, and the sidelining of women. The roles of the Assembly of First Nations and the Native Womens Association of Canada (NWAC) in this National Inquiry are a case-in-point. The Chiefs Assembly — predominantly men — has the lofty governance role of organizing the roundtables, while NWAC merely has to ensure the mental and emotional well-being of hearing participants. This amounts to Western patriarchy at its best. The sense of Indigenous male entitlement is reinforced by our so-called “feminist” prime minister.

The Commissioners of the Inquiry must look at what men are doing to women and girls and how various systems uphold male interests to allow violence to continue.

For example, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has refused to arrest or charge pimps and johns, which clearly conveys that sexual exploitation of women and girls goes unabated. When Jim Fisher of the Counter Exploitation Unit of the VPD takes this message to heart and perpetrates the very crime he is trusted to prevent, what do Indigenous leaders make of it? The predators among them know they will not be held to account: They have heard that message in spades from the Val D’or scandal, the Highway of Tears, and numerous other examples of justice system impropriety. Another example of the conspiring among Indigenous and non-Indigenous men is the lobby to include men and boys in the Inquiry despite the fact that we — women — have done the lion’s share of work in bringing the issue forward.

And now that patriarchy is deeply instilled, let’s have a look at the way they have now succeeded in erasing our sex identity, precluding any possibility to make meaningful change. We’ve come this far — it’s up to us Indigenous feminists and our allies to break open the tiny crack in this window of opportunity.

Fay Blaney is a Xwemalhkwu woman of the Coast Salish Nation and a founding member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN). As an educator and activist, she has devoted her heart and knowledge to educating and mobilizing Canadians to better understand the impacts of colonization, capitalism and patriarchy on First Nations women.

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