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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  • Lipstick_Traces

    Great post. Thanks.

  • Alienigena

    Refusing to acknowledge that violence against women occurs within families, communities, nations, institutions, religious organizations seems to be a universal phenomenon. Women’s experience is different from men because of this violence. For example, extractive industries have negative impacts on women’s lives (here and abroad). 80-90% of the jobs in these industries go to men while women (especially indigenous women) pay the price. Canada relies heavily on extractive industries as do other countries.

    • tamarack

      I disagree that extractive industries especially negatively affect indigenous women. But the Left loves it when we say they do. White/European/Anglo women have been battered, exploited and murdered at the hands of mining oil, and other extractive industries workers in the thousands in Canada, pimped, pornified and sold in “gentlemen’s” clubs and the backpages of the fav lefty mag Vue, but the Left was not roused until indigenous women spoke up about their plight. Race, always, trumps Sex. The Left vaults right over the anglo woman’s body lying in a pool of blood to get to the First Nations woman in need of rescuing.

      I am Metis, by blood. Will that get my comment through mod, hmmm?

      • Alienigena

        Yeah, these industries don’t always negatively impact indigenous women. But proportionately these industries don’t seem that beneficial to women worldwide (e.g. Latin America, Africa). Sorry, didn’t mean to make assumptions. The democracy in my province (AB) has not been improved by extractive industries but as you point out that could be said of other industries as well, e.g. high tech in Silicon Valley probably has too much say in local government.

        I find that I have no happy place on the political spectrum. I don’t have the right views on everything considered to be progressive or leftist (not just feminist issues, but issues related to pipelines, pipelines seem better than rail transport for oil/bitumen, but likely increase volume of oil flowing, so increase likelihood a leak will be more damaging) and always sort of cringe when I vote (for NDP or Greens or liberals). I find progressive males sort of scummy in terms of their views on prostitution, women’s rights, male violence. And frankly a proportion of progressives seem to believe in their own conspiracy theories as does the alt-right.

        Some cousins work in extractive industries, my mother’s family has a limited corporation that family members have shares in (for O&G leases on their land) that doesn’t generate revenues for members (all monies paid by the company leasing the land are used to maintain the corporation, e.g. pay corporate taxes, pay for bookkeeping, etc.)). I don’t have a degree in economics and don’t know if carbon tax will actually significantly decrease consumption of fossil fuels in AB. So don’t know if it is right approach. But I do get sick of my right-wing and libertarian relatives railing about that tax or another favorite topic of theirs, public school teachers (don’t ask me why, I don’t know and they won’t explain).

        • tamarack

          I didn’t say they did NOT negatively impact native women, but that they impact all women, however in the Left’s stampede to be saviours, and in the current rush to write about the issue and appear to be contrite good white guys, you can compare that to what happened to Luci. The gentlemen’s clubs are white girls who it is said “choose” to lap dance and fuck their way to a law degree or whatever. White girls choose, First Nation’s girls are victims (true). But It’s the same misogyny.

  • Jax Gullible

    Thank you so very much Fay Blaney for this superb and brave thinking. Solidarity

  • oilwoman

    First Rule of Liberal Politics: Never Mention Gender; Always Mention Class

    • Yisheng Qingwa

      It is sex, not “gender”. we need to return to using the words that mean what we are saying.

      • FierceMild

        Strongly agree.

      • Richard Rich

        @xiaomao666:disqus It’s a shame that words like “gender”, “cis”, and “trans” have been taken out of their original context, and I believe this was done deliberately over the years to blur the lines between biological sex and socialized sex roles. Just like one can’t discount the possibility that the politicians enacting these “Gender Identity” laws are being paid to do so by a very wealthy anti-feminist lobby. Or at least a group of people whose interests are lining their pockets promoting “gender” with their media and advertising. Big Pharma and psychiatry have also gotten their cut promoting this nonsense too.

        And this sounds conspiratorial. But it all boils down to people getting paid at the expense of everyone else. Whether it’s women and girls whose lives are negatively affected by a phenomenon they have no part of. Or people with serious mental illnesses (crossdressers and autogynephiles) who should be getting psychiatric help instead of being used as Guinea pigs.

        • Meghan Murphy

          It does sound conspiratorial but it’s also true that this sudden and intense push to adopt gender identity legislation everywhere is funded by wealthy white men… It’s not at all crazy to think that a thing that means huge profits for Big Pharma — like, people ‘have’ to be on drugs for the rest of their lives if they trans — would be promoted heavily to governments by Big Pharma.

          • Richard Rich

            @meghan_murphy:disqus Please don’t take this the wrong way, but my trust and tolerance level for white folks in the West has decreased dramatically. We don’t see other cultures (as misogynistic as they are) promoting “gender identity” like Western culture does, redefining the meaning of female and male, and showing more respect and consideration for men who want to be called women, as if it’s their right, than the actual women and girls themselves whose lives are affected by this bizarre phenomenon.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I don’t take it the wrong way — I agree. Privileged white people in the West are primarily focused on themselves. We can see this narcissism everywhere: celebrity culture, the self-help industry, selfie culture…

          • FierceMild


            Other places are also into the idea that homosexual people can be converted by transing:


          • FierceMild

            I can’t recall where I read/heard the idea that part of the impetus behind big pharmaceutical endorsing the trans phenomenon was menopausal women no longer undergoing hormone therapy on account of the horrible side effects. The trans movement produced an immediate target group for that same therapy.

          • radwonka

            But Meghan! you do know that the free market is so empowering for people!! nothing else matters as long as people can be rich, we shouldnt discuss the rest! People who work get emancipated through labor!
            (I mean the way they push gender ideology, reminds a lot of pro free market arguments that the left LOVES to use. If trans wasnt legal, you would see them saying things like “LEgalization now! Protect trans through the free market! Let people make the choice to decide what they are! Empowerment! Dont be a moralist!! Buying stuff is a RIGHT! The most important in the world!”)

      • radwonka

        Yeah, lets stop using “gender”. It has always been “socialized roles”/”internalized culture”.

  • anne cameron

    Thank you for this. When a trans/female is awarded “woman of the year” something is very seriously awry!
    I have a few hera’s in my life… notably, Shirley Bear, Malacite woman who walked from N.B. to Ottawa to fight for native women’s rights.
    Yes, that’s correct, she WALKED… why wasn’t she woman of the year? Or Kahn Tineta Horne. Or Fay Blaney. Or Margaret Atleo. Or Mary Little. Or THOUSANDS of others who survived, and did it with humour and dignity.

  • tamarack

    I didn’t say “people”. I said the Left. Male left. They work against criminalizing johns and supporting a particularly loud mouthed sex industry contingent who harass our host at every possible opportunity. The political male Left. “L” are way into refusing to admit rape is a problem when it’s a white women but so very sympathetic for what’s going on mouthing words for third world women, and women of colour here. Look at Amnesty. All they’re doing is looking after their own dicks.

  • tamarack

    Do you see any tribunals and enquiries about male violence against women, or massive editorial content decrying the state of male violence against women and demanding our government do something about it? Any agreement there’s a rape culture? It’s easier to focus on a small segment they can call race and gain massive cred for talking about that. I have not heard any First Nations women but a few mostly here acknowledging what’s happening for First Nations women is a gender problem, first.

    PRogressive Left men fetishize native women.

    Yes, Amnesty is an example of Left male-think.

    • FierceMild

      I think I might be misunderstanding your point. It seemed to me that you were claiming special treatment of First Nations women; as if there were resources and care offered for their use and withheld from white women. While everything I’ve read indicates that First Nations women are at much higher risk, as a class, of abuse exploitation and murder at the hands of men (often white johns) then white women.

  • Tamarack Verrall

    Thank you Fay Blaney for this courageous and excellent article. I am well aware of the forms of attack that you face in speaking out so clearly on these issues. It was a big relief to me to read your words. I was sorry to read some of the responses, detracting from your message, and hope that everyone will just reread your article again and concentrate on the reality that you describe. There seem to be 2 Tamaracks…and I hope that the other Tamarack in particular will find other ways to continue to work against all forms of violence against all women, without deflecting attention by focussing on what some white men on the Left do. You have given us a deep look at what Indigenous feminists and allies can and need to address together. Tamarack Verrall

  • Lisa Tremblay

    Thanks to Fay Blaney for this update on the status of the National Inquiry. The gender dynamics – with AFN taking a lead role and NWAC being sidelined to help participants – is indeed patriarchy in action. It’s too bad Indigenous men don’t recognize how they’re being manipulated by non-Indigenous men into oppressing their own women. To really honour the missing and murdered women, the inquiry has to examine the role of European invaders in forcing patriarchy on Indigenous nations. That’s the link to the murders. If this root is not surfaced, how will the women’s spirits rest?