The Orenda is an epic, gruesome, gut-wrenching book that opens with a bloody massacre that rivals any over-the-top battle scene in Game of Thrones. Replete with graphic scenes of ritualized torture—limbs are hacked, people get scalped often, bodies are slowly burned at the stake and many, many throats are slit—Joseph Boyden's award-winning historical novel set in 17th century Ontario and Quebec is at turns a violent story of struggle, assimilation, and suffering. The book, alongside Boyden's other works like Three Day Road, Born With a Tooth, and Through Black Spruce, has rightly elicited visceral responses from many Canadians. When The Orendawon the Canada Reads prize in 2014, there was a memorably heated battle between Stephen Lewis and Wab Kinew where the former accused Boyden of going too far in his depiction of historical brutality. The novel also faced criticism for what some called the reinforcement of First Nations stereotypes but there's no question The Orendastirred up a livelier conversation about the realities of our Indigenous communities than we're used to having in this country.
Boyden, who is part Metis, revisited some of those realities in a powerful essay for Maclean's about the recent suicide crisis in Attawapiskat and how the legacy of residential schools has shaped what's happening there. In the piece Boyden talks about how his own earlier struggles with depression and suicide were met with almost immediate assistance, the kind you can only get in this country by living in an affluent urban centre. This tiered class system is one of many ways Canada perpetuates inequality and Boyden tackles that issue with much needed passion.
I met up with him in a conference room in the bowels of Greater Toronto to talk about the role artists can play in reconciliation, what constitutes real progress in Indigenous communities and where exactly we go from here.
VICE: You've spoken really powerfully about the idea of intergenerational trauma. What does that phrase mean to you?
Joseph Boyden: It's a phrase that I've not just learned but had to ingest over the course of the last several years as an honorary witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so I've really thrown my heart into that. It's not something to take lightly, it's not just something I take and put into my pocket and walk away, it's something that I try to live. My family did not experience residential schools, I did not, but I have many friends who did. And I watched how this has affected their lives and their children's lives and their grandchildren's lives. Intergenerational trauma is a concept and it's a reality. It's insanity, it's cultural genocide is what it was and that's not a term I use lightly, one of the highest courts in our land has called it that.
So this intergenerational trauma that I talk about—you can't take children from their parents and raise them in these cold institutions where abuse happens in all its forms and then do it over and over again. Those youth have children and you lose your parenting skills you lose your cultural skills and it's going to resonate and resonate. The damage we see in Attawapiskat, the suicide rates, the drug addiction rates, the plethora of problems we often see on isolated reserves is a direct fallout of that. You're only as good a country as how you treat the ones who need our help the most, our children—they're not their children, they're our children.
We've seen renewed interest and media coverage in communities like Attawapiskat, but now that the cameras are gone, what kind of impact if any are you seeing there? Have you been back?
I think in communities like Attawapiskat the biggest danger for me is that people show up when there's a crisis and then they do what they can which is wonderful, but then they leave and there's a danger in that because it's that feeling in the community of going from helpless to hopeful to helpless again, which is why I didn't want to rush up there when it first happened. But I'll be going up with a friend Jules Koostachin, whose family is from the community. We have a plan, much like Susan Aglukark who is amazing and has been up to teach songwriting.
Specifically, we're going to teach them documentary filmmaking with an iPad and iMovie. And rather than leave after a week of teaching them this we're gonna have a big night of movies, here's these documentaries these kids made and we'll say to those who are interested, come with us to another reserve and teach those youth how to create their own stories. And we're going to pay it forward in that way and that's one of the ways in which artists can keep the ball rolling forward and not just be good saints who show up and then leave.
Is that the role art and artists like yourself should play in reconciliation?
I always try to stress that I'm just one voice of many, many in this country especially Indigenous artists, Indigenous writers, Indigenous painters, people who bring to life their own experiences in their own visceral way. The role of the artist is an important one, I'm trying to give you medicine but you don't necessarily want the medicine so I have to wrap it in a nice piece of juicy bacon. I'm the type of writer to never say, "Oh this is my mission, this is my mission statement." My job is to tell a story. I'm not going to educate you, that's not my job. My job is to entertain and through that entertainment hopefully the medicine is going to be absorbed.
There's a new survey out saying that Canadians are more engaged than ever with these issues and want to see something change—what needs to happen today to translate that into action, how do you get those things moving?
I've watched this kind of tide or tsunami in slow motion of residential schools happen and now it's beginning to recede and we're left looking at the detritus on the shores of this destruction and we're scratching our heads and asking what do we do with this? We work together and we rebuild. It's not going to be the same as it used to be before contact but we can make something beautiful, even more beautiful, by all of us coming together and I know that sounds very broad and general but very specifically: get to know your neighbour who is First Nations or Inuit or Metis. Go to your local reserve and meet the people. The fastest growing population in this country is First Nations youth. Millions of people in this country identify or self-identify as First Nations or Inuit or Metis, that's a very large percentage of the population. We all need to find a way to move forward together. We have to make reconciliation happen and that happens in the way we look at the world together.
Follow Amil Niazi on Twitter