Canadian author Joseph Boyden recently visited Fort Albany First Nation with the Tragically Hip to take part the annual Great Moon Gathering, a conference for educators. Originally from southern Ontario, Boyden taught at the Northern College’s Moosonee campus in the late 90s and traveled to the northern communities. He went on to write a collection of short stories and two novels that feature Mushkegowuk Cree as the main characters. His first novel, Three Day Road, won several awards while his second, Through Black Spruce, won the Giller Prize in 2008 for Best Canadian Novel.
Speaking from his home in New Orleans, Boyden talked to Lenny Carpenter about how he and the Tragically Hip got involved in the conference, his passion for writing about the Mushkegowuk Cree, and how he wanted to the dispel the negative press that arose out of the Attawapiskat housing crisis. He also gave some details about his upcoming novel, which is to be the last of a trilogy featuring the Cree characters.
Wawatay: Both yourself and the Tragically Hip were involved in the Great Moon Gathering in Fort Albany. Can you tell us how that came about and what the experience was like?
Boyden: Just before Christmas, Ed Metatawabin contacted me – I’ve known Ed for years – and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be the keynote speaker for the Great Moon Gathering’ and I said, ‘I’d love to, it’s been such a long time since I’ve been up to Fort Albany.’
And then he says, ‘Oh, you have a friend named Gord Downie (of the Tragically Hip), right?’ And I said ‘Ah, this the real reason you’re asking, isn’t it?’ (laughs) And he said, ‘Maybe he’ll want to play a couple of songs.’
Gord loves James Bay. I brought him up fishing a number of times and introduced him to the people, and he just loves the people. And I called him and he said, ‘You know what? The band and I are recording a new album. I’ll ask them, maybe they’ll wanna come up because I’ve been wanting to get them up.’ So I write a letter to the band, and they all enthusiastically agreed and said, ‘That’s a great idea. Let’s go as a stripped down version of the band. Normally, we travel with 10,000 pounds of equipment. We’re gonna go with 700 pounds of equipment and do a show for the community and bring our producer Gavin Brown.’
And the event was magical. I think it was just a beautiful time. The people were so warm and receptive. The band absolutely loved it. And Karen Metatawabin made them all moosehide hats and beaver hats as gifts, so they just absolutely loved it.
Wawatay: What else did you do in your time there?
Boyden: Well, in my keynote address, I obviously had to deal with all the stuff going on with Attawapiskat and all the negative stuff that came out that I see in the press. I was like, ‘Wait a second, these aren’t all the people I know and write about. These aren’t the people I love being represented so wrongly.’ So I wanted to try to correct the mistruth that I see flying around, so that’s what I tried to do in my keynote. It was very warmly received as well, which was nice.
Wawatay: Why did you feel it was important to take part in the gathering?
Boyden: As you know, I write about the Cree and people in Mushkegowuk have given me so much creatively, and my best friends remain people from James Bay and so I wanted to give back a little bit in my own small way to the people. To show the people up in Fort Albany, Kash, Attawapiskat and Moose Factory that Canadians actually love you all up there and there’s a lot of people who ‘get it,’ who know you’re powerful people and strong people, and I wanted to try to show that.
Wawatay: So you were a teacher up there and have gone on to write two novels and a collection of short stories based on the Cree people of the James Bay. What was it about the people that made you want to write about them?
Boyden: I was fascinated when I first moved up to James Bay, just the rich culture and history that I found there immediately. And then there’s the people, the warmth of every community I went to, the people opened up their arms to me in their homes. I was just blown away by that. I’m a mixed blood. I’m Ojibwe, Scottish and Irish background, so the Cree are kind of like my cousins, but so many of them became great friends, and the stories that I found were too good to keep to myself. They drove my writing passion.
Wawatay: This is a part of the country very few people know about or experience. What impact do you think literature can have in bringing the people and places in this region to other Canadians and people around the world?
Boyden: I’ve felt like I discovered a gold mine and I realized quickly, Oh my gosh, no one has written about the Cree of Mushkegowuk before and how lucky am I as a writer to have this incredibly rich territory to mine creatively. And I thought, you know what? There’s such good universal stories. I write very specifically about the Cree, but the story is so universal. There’s the hardship, but there’s also the beauty of the land. There’s the beauty of the people. There’s the misunderstanding that always goes on, so I try to correct that in my writing, to show people that are tough and resilient and very strong, and that are human.
Wawatay: You wrote two novels that were highly acclaimed. Through Black Spruce won the Giller prize for Best Canadian Novel. Why do you think it was so popular across the country?
Boyden: What I’ve really been happy about is showing Canadians a part of their country that they never knew about. And so I was so enthusiastic about writing that, and I think that’s what came through in the writing, and I think other Canadians are excited about this idea, that there’s a land within Canada that’s kind of undiscovered in some ways by so many people. And again, the stories – while specifically about the Cree people – they end up being universal. The stories of overcoming tough times, of fighting things like addiction. I’m not afraid to write about that kind of stuff because that’s reality sometimes. But again, there’s the beauty as well. I think that’s what people responded to.
Wawatay: You mentioned Attawapiskat earlier and the negative press that it received. When you see those types of things in the media, what do you think needs to be done in terms of solutions?
Boyden: The most important thing is always education, and that’s why I was excited to come up to an education conference. I think education is vital because education is power for the people. And I also think very specifically that the Cree should get a fair share of the resources that are taken from your country. You should be in charge of that and have fair access to profits from those resources. It’s an unbelievable shame and irony that some of the richest diamond pipes in the world are being discovered and dug right up in Attawapiskat country and yet the community is faced with a crisis. There’s something really, really wrong there, that Attawapiskat and the other reserves are not getting the fair share of your resources and the profits from your resources.
We all know that – well, most people don’t know but I think the Cree people know – that this whole housing crisis in Attawapiskat originally started because De Beers overflowed the sewage system in Attawapiskat, which caused the problem to begin with. And it’s just so unfair that these homes are destroyed and no one’s picking up the cost. People are blaming the victim and it makes me so angry, and it made the Hip angry too. So these are the mistruths I wanted to dispell.
Wawatay: You mention your new novel. To my understanding, you’re working on the last of a trilogy about the Swampy Cree people of James Bay. Can you give us an idea of what that will be about and how it relates to the previous novels?
Boyden: Yeah, the first novel is historical (Three Day Road, set during WWI), and second one was contemporary, and so there’s a big gap in time that’s missing. The third novel plans to look at that middle ground in the 20th century over the course of 40-50 years. In the first two novels, there’s two characters talking to each other, and in this novel it’ll be the same thing. This time a very old man speaking to his young granddaughter. It’s actually his niece but he’s speaking with her and she’s speaking with him, so that’s how I’m going to fill in that in-between time.
Wawatay: Is there anything you wanted to add about your trip to Fort Albany or the people of James Bay?
Boyden: Again, it was a magical trip. I think everyone involved just loved it – community members as well as the band, myself and my wife, who came up. I’m a fighter for the people, and I’ll always do that. I’ll try to correct the misunderstandings that many people have, and always show the beauty of the people as well.
I have always found it a natural part of my life to want to head out into the wilderness to be surrounded by pines, to be next to a river or lake and to...