Joseph Boyden's The Orenda helps resurgence of indigenous culture and voices in the arts


Canada Reads crowns Joseph Boyden's The Orenda 2014 winner

Book was defended in literary battle by First Nations journalist Wab Kinew

Posted: Mar 06, 2014 10:58 AM ET Last Updated: Mar 06, 2014 6:01 PM ET

The Orenda wins Canada Reads 2014

The Orenda wins Canada Reads 2014 2:00

Canada Reads winners

Canada Reads winners5:31

Canada Reads declares a winner

Canada Reads declares a winner 3:53

Joseph Boyden interview

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After a week of vigorous debate, one novel has triumphed in CBC's annual Canada Reads literary battle: Joseph Boyden's The Orenda, which was defended this week by First Nations journalist Wab Kinew.

Set in the 17th century, Boyden's 2013 historical bestseller explores the tumultuous relationships between indigenous groups and settlers in the days before the formation of Canada. It was a contender for the Governor General's Award and longlisted for the Giller Prize.

"I'm shaking. I'm in Thunder Bay and I'm shaking not because of the cold," Boyden said via telephone, immediately after his novel was announced as the 2014 winner.

"What an amazing group of writers to be surrounded by and the panellists were all amazing," he declared.

Wab Kinew

Wab Kinew defended Joseph Boyden's The Orenda for the 2014 edition of Canada Reads. (Farhang Ghajar/CBC)

Earlier this week, philanthropist and panellist Stephen Lewis vigorously debated the novel's graphic depiction of torture with Kinew.

Boyden admitted that he had listened to the debates all week and that hearing criticism of his book, "at times it was painful for sure, but we're all writers. We all have to take that once in awhile."

He also noted that he had started a Twitter hashtag for his champion Kinew: #WabKinewforPrimeMinister.

"This [book] is for the people," Kinew said. "It's not just lessons on being a good Indian, but lessons on how to be a good human being in here."

The Orenda won over Rawi Hage's Cockroach, which was defended this week by writer, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee.

The contemporary, darkly humorous 2008 novel explores the alienation of a nameless immigrant in Montreal struggling with depression and the underbelly of the immigrant experience in Canada. The book was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

The usually humorous Bee grew emotional in her final defence ofCockroach, arguing that its exploration of the dark side of the immigrant experience was imperative given areas of turmoil around the world today, like Syria.

The other contenders eliminated earlier this week, and their respective champions, were:

  • Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood, defended by Lewis.
  • Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues, defended by Olympic gold medallist Donovan Bailey.
  • Kathleen Winter's Annabel, defended by actor Sarah Gadon.

The novels selected this year were chosen in accordance with the 2014 theme: what is the one novel that could change Canada?

The goal was to find a book that could change the hearts, minds and lives of readers across the nation, with the ultimate goal of inspiring social change.

Past Canada Reads winners have included: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, February by Lisa Moore, Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill and The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis.

As the annual competition has grown in recognition over the years, a phenomenon known as "the Canada Reads effect" has emerged where the five competitors see a spike in sales, with both a jump in sales and recognition for the eventual winner.  

Both Boyden and Kinew will be interviewed by Canada Reads host Jian Ghomeshi on CBC cultural affairs show Q  on Friday morning.



Joseph Boyden's The Orenda fuels important conversation

Art is forcing people to rethink their notions of the original people of this land

By Waubgeshig Rice, Posted: Mar 01, 2014

Joseph Boyden and Waubgeshig Rice discuss indigenous storytelling through literature at Ottawa's Canada Read event, held at Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.

Joseph Boyden and Waubgeshig Rice discuss indigenous storytelling through literature at Ottawa's Canada Read event, held at Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health. (CBC)

About The Author

Photo of Waubgeshig Rice

Waubgeshig Rice, Video Journalist with CBC Ottawa. He is also an author of Midnight Sweatlodge (Theytus Books, 2011) and Legacy (Theytus Books, 2014). Waub is Anishinaabe from Wasauksing First Nation, Ontario. You can tweet him @waub.

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In the eyes of mainstream Canada, there appears to be a resurgence of indigenous culture and voices in the arts.

Musicians like A Tribe Called Red and Inez Jasper get significant play and are up for Juno awards. Films like Empire of Dirt and Rhymes for Young Ghouls have created a critical buzz. Artists like Christi Belcourtand Duane Linklater are providing vibrant imagery that tells important stories.

And recent books by authors like Joseph Boyden and RichardWagamese have been nominated for major awards and are the focus of major critical discussions.

Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden wrote The Orenda. (Penguin Group)

 Boyden's new novel,The Orenda, is a finalist in this year's Canada Reads competition. It's been highly acclaimed for its look at the relationships between indigenous groups and settlers prior to the formation of Canada in the 17thCentury.

But it's also faced criticism for its portrayal of some of those people and the violence between them.

Still, the book's capacity as powerful new art that forces the mainstream to take note of indigenous issues and experiences transcends that debate and fuels an importation conversation.

One such conversation happened earlier this week in Ottawa, called Aboriginal Canada Reads: A celebration of indigenous storytelling through literature.

A crowd of about 150 at Wabano engaged in an entertaining and intense discussion with Boyden about The Orenda and the role of literature in preserving and sharing Indigenous culture. Some of them did not shy away from the book's controversy.

The book is violent, with scenes of warfare and torture between the Huron and the Haudenosaunee people. Some critics take issue with Boyden's portrayal of the latter, who are the novel's antagonists. These issues have grown louder on social media in the lead up to Canada Reads.

'Art is forcing people to rethink their notions of the original people of this land and their important place in society. But it's not a resurgence. It's been happening for generations.'- Waubgeshig Rice

While Boyden defends his research and his characters, it's important to look at how the book and these debates are exposing many non-indigenous readers to what some experiences may have been like 400 years ago.

The hope is that it forces them to rethink history and who exactly created this country.

That said, no book of fiction should ever substitute historical facts. Indigenous scholars and historians should be the contact point to learn about this particular era.

While art does not viably retell history, it provides unique and compelling glimpses into what life could be like. And that's the strength of this apparent artistic resurgence coming from the indigenous people of Canada.

Through music, film, visual arts and literature, art is forcing people to rethink their notions of the original people of this land and their important place in society. But it's not a resurgence. It's been happening for generations. Canada is just finally taking note.