When indigenous scholars meet for the first time, they will often share details of the land and people who claim them. In other words, introductions may touch on specific nations, ancestors, Elders, knowledge keepers, as well as roles, responsibilities or membership within these communities. For Shelly Johnson, an associate professor at Thompson Rivers University and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Indigenizing Higher Education, this exchange of identification is important for building new relationships, especially when Indigenous faculty aren’t working in their own traditional territories.
“Perhaps this is a point of building trust; when our circle of relationships begins to include people that we know in common, when we share our respective experiences and have independent, overlapping relationships with them,” says Dr. Johnson, who is Saulteaux from Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan.
“Sometimes non-Indigenous people will shy away from that and think it’s too personal. I can think of a number of non-Indigenous colleagues whose families I’ve never met,” notes Dr. Johnson. But it’s how Indigenous faculty identify themselves to other Indigenous faculty, she adds. It’s also a good place to start when thinking about best practices for avoiding Indigenous identity fraud at universities.
As Dr. Johnson and other scholars point out, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to verifying someone’s claim to an Indigenous community. The question becomes even more complex considering how many generations of Indigenous people have been deliberately separated from their traditional communities through government policies and practices such as the Sixties Scoop or residential schools. Angela Jaime, who hails from the Pit River and Valley Maidu nations in California, and serves as vice-provost of Indigenous engagement at the University of Saskatchewan, puts it this way: “If [verifying membership or citizenship to an Indigenous community] were cut and dried, my life would be so much easier.”
The issue has been top of mind this past year for university administrators like Dr. Jaime as they help craft policies to ensure that initiatives earmarked for Indigenous faculty members and students are actually awarded to Indigenous faculty members and students. The need for policies and processes that go beyond self-identification became clear following a series of media reports questioning the Indigenous identity claims of several prominent academics who had benefited from targeted hiring, advancement and funding opportunities.
The U of Saskatchewan is still dealing with the repercussions of one of these news stories. In October 2021, the CBC reported that Carrie Bourassa, a respected professor and director of the university’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health, had claimed at various times to be of Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit heritage without proof to support her assertions. The university placed her on leave and launched an external investigation. In June 2022, Dr. Bourassa resigned from the university.
While Dr. Bourassa’s case attracted a lot of attention, hers is just one of a growing list. In August 2022, artist Gina Adams resigned from her faculty position at Emily Carr University of Art and Design shortly before a Maclean’s article challenged her Indigenous heritage. In December 2021, the newspaper Le Droit reported that Jessica Bardill, a professor of Native American and Indigenous literature at Concordia University, had been suspended after her claims of Cherokee ancestry were called into question. In June 2021, an anonymous report alleged that six instructors, professors and associates at Queen’s University had wrongly claimed Indigenous identity. Several Indigenous academics, Indigenous community members and allies from across Canada publicly called upon Queen’s to develop hiring guidelines that affirm First Nations, Métis and Inuit processes for recognizing membership. The university responded by asking First Peoples Group, an Indigenous advisory firm, to investigate and provide recommendations to that end.
In winter 2021, Amie Wolf, an adjunct professor of Indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia who claimed to be Métis and Mi’kmaq, was fired after doubts were raised about her background.
Most recently, in October 2022, another CBC investigation called into question claims made by scholar and advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. A recipient of the Order of Canada, Dr. Turpel-Lafond is a UBC law professor, a former Saskatchewan judge, and served as a legal adviser to Indigenous leaders during the Charlottetown Accord negotiations. The CBC story prompted declarations of support from Indigenous organizations in B.C. and Saskatchewan, as well as calls from Indigenous scholars that Dr. Turpel-Lafond provide evidence of her claims to be a treaty Indian of Cree descent. On Jan. 3, CBC reported that the professor had left the institution as of Dec. 16, 2022. She later clarified that she had decided to retire.
The status card dilemma
Senator Michèle Audette, Université Laval’s senior adviser on reconciliation and Indigenous education, is one of those working to come up with solutions. Senator Audette is the daughter of a Quebecer father and an Innu mother, and comes from the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam in Quebec. She says part of the problem is that university administrators have typically relied on candidates to self-identify as Indigenous and have hesitated to ask for documents to verify that identity, believing it to be a disrespectful request.
But after doing a bit of digging, Senator Audette came up with examples of scholarships that U Laval had offered students of Greek heritage. In that case, applicants had to provide proof that one of their parents was Greek. When it comes to opportunities for Indigenous peoples, “Why can’t we do the same?” she asks.
Working with the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission, U Laval has started to do just that. In March, the university adopted an identification procedure to verify that students applying for scholarships and spots reserved for First Nations, Inuit or Métis students are indeed Indigenous. Candidates must be registered with, or members of, one of 11 Indigenous nations officially recognized by the province of Quebec, or they must be a beneficiary of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. As such, they must show their Indian status card, issued by the federal government, or a declaration of community membership from the nation that claims them. While the policy currently applies to students, it will also inform policies for faculty and staff.
Read also: A question of identity
Senator Audette stresses that it shouldn’t be up to a university to determine who is Indigenous and who is not. Rather, that authority comes from the community to which the person belongs, and status cards — a federal document that confirms one’s registration as a “status Indian” under Canada’s Indian Act and entitles the holder to certain rights under the law— are one way to check. While status cards are considered a colonial hangover because they are ultimately approved or denied by the federal government, Senator Audette points out that many Indigenous communities have decided they serve a purpose.
In July, U of Saskatchewan approved a similar policy on Indigenous membership or citizenship verification. The policy was developed by the task force struck after the Bourassa scandal, which was made up of 27 Elders, knowledge keepers, language teachers, and other leaders from Indigenous communities and campus. It outlines the process to be completed by anyone applying for jobs, scholarships or other programs reserved for Indigenous peoples. Under some circumstances, verification may also be required for those who already hold such positions.
Under the policy, those claiming citizenship with the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan need to produce either a citizenship card from the nation, or a letter from its registrar saying the candidate meets the criteria to be a citizen. In the case of First Nations citizenship, the Saskatoon Tribal Council, which represents seven First Nations in the province, has decided a status card can be used as proof of citizenship.
“The status card is colonial,” says Dr. Jaime. “But so is a driver’s licence and a passport. We live in a world where identification is essential. The difference here is we’re hoping Indigenous communities will determine what documentation they want as opposed to colonial governments dictating it to them.”
She notes, however, that it’s not feasible for every university across the country to ask every Indigenous community how to determine citizenship. But, as administrators work with their local Indigenous communities to establish appropriate standards, universities in other parts of the country can look at those agreements for additional insight into the verification process at their own institutions.
The hard work has begun
A report released this past fall by U of Saskatchewan aims to provide exactly this kind of overarching guidance on how to address the issue. Written by Jean Teillet, a lawyer and Canadian expert on Indigenous rights, Métis identity and history, the report investigates the root causes of the problem and offers recommendations for how the university may effectively implement its new policies and processes, including warning signs that may suggest identity fraud.
While Ms. Teillet commends the institution for requiring appropriate identification for Indigenous candidates, she notes in the report that false claims of Indigenous citizenship and identity have become a problem “because Canadians generally and the academy specifically, were ignorant about the complexities of Indigenous identity.” The solution, she writes, is “education about Indigenous peoples.” Such education is particularly important for human resources staff, administrators and faculty members who sit on search committees – but it’s also a warning to those who would seek to make a false claim.
“Indigenous identity fraudsters need to know that [the university] will ask for evidence to support an Indigenous identity claim and that [it] will verify that evidence,” Ms. Teillet notes. “To date fraudsters have been slipping into the academy because they could, because no one checked, and because no one thought they should check Indigenous identity claims. Sending a clear signal that those days are over will act as a strong deterrent.” None of this will be easy and it will take as long as it takes. That was the message that came out of the inaugural National Indigenous Identity Forum this past March.
Rather than focus on identity… it’s more useful to consider discussion of citizenship, relationship and kinship, which speak to who claims a person rather than who the person claims to be.
The forum was convened by First Nations University of Canada and the National Indigenous University Senior Leaders’ Association to tackle a single but multi-faceted question: How can postsecondary institutions ensure that positions, grants, scholarships, and other opportunities designated for Indigenous peoples are not taken by “pretendians” (a portmanteau for “pretend Indians”).
“One of the most emphasized themes was that self-identification is no longer appropriate,” says Jacqueline Ottmann, president of FNUC and co-chair of the association. She is Anishinaabe (Saulteaux), a speaker of the Nakawe language and a Fishing Lake First Nation member in Treaty 4 Territory in Saskatchewan. “But if self-declaration is not viable anymore, what is?” she asks. “Universities, alongside Indigenous peoples, need to create respectful processes, ones that centre and uplift Indigenous ways of being, knowing, and doing.”
A report issued after the event urges people in hiring positions to move beyond self-identification or simply providing proof of membership: “Request community references. Build questions into the interview and selection process that focus on Indigenous knowledge and traditions.” Rather than focus on identity, the report’s authors say it’s more useful to consider discussion of citizenship, relationship and kinship, which speak to who claims a person rather than who the person claims to be. Markers of identity can help here, the report states – a name or clan, community responsibilities, one’s ability to give gifts, and to whom one is accountable are examples.
“I want people to understand the complexity of the situation. It’s not going to be easy and we all need to work together for the best possible outcome.”
But this too can be a grey area. Dr. Johnson of TRU points to her own life experience: after her mother’s death, she was claimed as a daughter by two Secwépemc families in B.C.’s interior.
“I have responsibilities to be present when there are gatherings, to be supportive, to act like a daughter, to care for parents, to care for siblings, but would I say I’m Secwépemc? Absolutely not,” Dr. Johnson says. “So, what does it mean to be adopted by a family, but not by a nation?”
Then there is the issue of card-carrying status Indians who may not have a deep understanding of their communities. Kanonhsyonne Janice Hill, associate vice-principal of Indigenous initiatives and reconciliation at Queen’s, says she has Mohawk relatives whom she wouldn’t hire for an Indigenous faculty position because they have little to no knowledge or experience of their community’s culture, traditions or language.
“Likewise, we have a lot of settler scholars who are scholars of Indigenous topics. They’re not Indigenous people, but they may have studied Indigenous history, or something that they are recognized as an expert in, so they’re able to teach,” Ms. Hill adds. “But what they’re not able to teach are the things that are considered the sacred or the deep cultural teachings.” “I want people to understand the complexity of the situation,” says Ms. Hill. “It’s not going to be easy and we all need to work together for the best possible outcome.”
Last July, Queen’s released the report it had commissioned from the First Peoples Group. It recommends the minimum threshold for validation should include citizenship or membership cards, plus a professional reference and references from a family member and an elected First Nation, Inuit or Métis leader. It also says the university needs to address staff who don’t meet the new requirements, whether that means finding them alternate assignments or firing them.
In the end, the authors of the Queen’s report may have captured the bottom line best when they wrote that it’s time for those who falsely claim to be Indigenous to simply serve as allies to Indigenous peoples. The report continues: “We heard strongly that to do otherwise is to show the ultimate disrespect: disrespect to the ancestors that people are trying to claim as theirs that aren’t, and disrespect to their own actual ancestors who are not Indigenous.”