Boyden grew up in Willowdale, North York, Ontario, and attended the Jesuit-run Brebeuf College School. Boyden experienced depression in his teenage years, and has said that he attempted suicide at sixteen. He is the son of Blanche (Gossling) and Raymond Wilfrid Boyden, a medical officer renowned for his bravery, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was the most highly decorated medical officer of World War II.
Boyden is best known for writing about First Nations culture. Three Day Road, a novel about two Cree soldiers serving in the Canadian military during World War I, is inspired by Ojibwa Francis Pegahmagabow, the legendary First World War sniper. Boyden's second novel, Through Black Spruce follows the story of Will, son of one of the characters in Three Day Road. The third novel in the Bird family trilogy was published in 2013 as The Orenda.
In 2014 Boyden accepted a commission from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to write a ballet about residential schools in Canada. Boyden's ballet Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation premiered in 2014.
Boyden studied creative writing at York University and the University of New Orleans, and subsequently taught in the Aboriginal Student Program at Northern College. He was a lecturer with the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing Program from 2014 to 2015. He lives in Louisiana, where he and his wife, Amanda Boyden, are writers in residence.
Boyden is primarily of Irish and Scottish ancestry. He was adopted as a sibling to Ojibway filmmaker Lisa Meeches in 2017. He also currently claims Nipmuc and Ojibway heritage.
Boyden's claims to Indigenous heritage have been the subject of dispute following an APTN National News article, "Author Joseph Boyden's shape-shifting Indigenous identity" by Jorge Barrera. published December 23, 2016. Barrera's article investigates Boyden's past claims of Mi'kmaq, and Metis ancestry as well as his current claims of being Nipmuc and Ojibway. Barrera brought to light facts surrounding Boyden's uncle Earl Boyden, who went by the name "Injun Joe". Earl Boyden was a native impersonator in Algonquin Park and was the subject of a 1956 Maclean's article titled, 'The Double Life of Injun Joe', in which he states that he has no "Indian blood". Subsequently, Rebeka Tabobondung, editor of Muskrat Magazine revealed Boyden had told her he was from the Wasauksing First Nation. Tabobondung who is from Wasauksing followed up to find his family connection and could not. However, Boyden's family did own a private island near the community. Boyden has also at various times claimed to have heritage from the Ojibway of Cape Croker, the Huron-Wendat and the Red River Metis.
Boyden, who had refused an interview with APTN for the article, responded by twitter on December 24. Boyden admitted he'd called himself Metis, but only meant the term to mean mixed blood. He continued to assert his maternal Ojibway and paternal Nipmuc roots.
Over the next weeks a series of Indigenous writers, activists and politicians including Wab Kinew, Drew Hayden Taylor Hayden King Ryan McMahon and others wrote about the controversy in national media. They asked on what basis Boyden felt he had expertise to represent issues if he was not Indigenous, and asked to whom he was accountable, as some of the positions he was presenting seemed out of line with ongoing work in Indigenous communities Others critiqued Boyden for accepting prizes, speaking fees, and awards that were designated for Indigenous authors. They publicly noted there could be "room in the circle" of the Indigenous community, reconciliation if there was truth, whether or not he had any Indigenous blood, so long as he was honest and willing to earn his place.
On January 12, 2017 Boyden gave his first public interviews since the appearance of the APTN article. He personally selected the interviewers who were both friends of his, Mark Medley of the Globe and Mail, and Candy Palmater a comedian who occasionally works at CBC. Boyden now admitted he had erroneously identified himself as Mi'kmaq in the past. He continued to identify as a "white kid with native roots," Ojibway on his mother's side and Nipmuc on his father's side. Boyden denied that he had relied on his identity as an Indigenous person to popularize his books, and he stated he had only won one literary prize based on heritage and little money. He did, however, apologize for taking up too much of the "air space" and stated he would do less public speaking, thus allowing for Indigenous voices to be heard in the media.
Reaction to the interviews was mixed.
Subsequent reports by Canadaland and other researchers turned up inconsistencies in Boyden's claims and failed to find any native ancestry in Boyden's background. In an August 2, 2017 essay in Maclean's Magazine, Boyden stated that he took a DNA test which listed "Native American DNA". For Boyden's critics, the results mean little as broad DNA categories do not constitute membership to a nation. According to First Nations genetics expert Kim Tallbear, DNA testing for Native ancestry as a racial category is not scientifically possible, and is often confused with DNA testing that confirms specific familial lineage.
In 2015 Boyden condemned Stephen Harper during the 2015 Canadian federal election, calling his politics "race-baiting" and "fear-mongering".
His debut novel, Three Day Road, won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2006, and was a nominee for the 2005 Governor General's Awards. It previously won the inaugural McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award. Three Day Road was chosen for inclusion in Canada Reads 2006, where it was championed by filmmaker Nelofer Pazira.
His second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
His third novel, The Orenda, was on the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2013, and won the 2014 edition of Canada Reads on 6 March 2014.
In 2009, Boyden was awarded an honorary degree (Doctor of Letters, honoris causa) from Nipissing University. In 2013, Boyden was awarded an honorary degree from Algoma University. On December 30, 2015, it was announced that Boyden was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada for his contributions as an author who tells stories of our common heritage, and for his social engagement, notably in support of First Nations.