Giller Prize winner gives back to those who inspired him

An award-winning author is using his prize money to give back to the communities that inspired him.

Northern Ontario students will be given an opportunity for post-secondary education, thanks to Joseph Boyden, winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize for the novel “Through Black Spruce”.

Boyden established the Four Seasons Scholarship program to provide financial aid and mentorship for members of the James Bay First Nations communities.

“Bands can never afford to send nearly as many students who want to go,” Boyden said. “(The scholarship) is trying to fulfill, or at least help with, the process of getting students education.”

Boyden, fresh from a five-week European tour promoting his book, read to a large crowd at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Sept. 29.

Northern communities on the James Bay coast are featured prominently in his novels “Through Black Spruce” and “Three Day Road.” Boyden’s first job as a teacher was professor of Aboriginal Programs at Northern College in Moosonee, where he became enthralled with the communities.

“I entered into these isolated reserves and fell in love with the people,” he said. “There are a lot problems [on the reserves], but there’s a lot of beauty too.”

In a report earlier this year, The Canadian Council on Learning found that the aboriginal population is under-represented in post-secondary educational institutions and aboriginal students have a lower rate of completion.

Some of the reasons cited for the disparities are poverty, racial discrimination and social isolation.

When students leave their smaller, tight-knit communities to pursue education, Boyden says they feel like “foreigners in a foreign land” and end up returning home before graduation.

“So many students from isolated communities come down south and end up being lost,” he said. “They’re going home after a year or two feeling defeated.”

Boyden said he’s starting small, helping one or two students a year initially, but hopes the program will expand to include aboriginals across Canada.  He will be working with the Moose Cree Education Authority to select the first recipients of the scholarship for the fall 2011 semester.