Since announcing discoveries of evidence last year that hundreds of Indigenous children were likely buried in unmarked graves at church-run residential school sites, Indigenous groups in Canada have captured more national attention.
So, too, has a growing group of Canadian public figures, mostly within academia, who have been accused of falsely claiming to be Indigenous.
Earlier this week, an investigation published by Canada’s national broadcaster, the C.B.C., found that the claims to Cree ancestry of a prominent scholar and former judge, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, did not align with historical records and interviews.
In a statement to the broadcaster, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said that her father, William, was Cree, but she did not address questions about his parents, whose genealogical records trace back to Europe and the United States, with no clear links to Indigenous ancestry.
The story follows another highly publicized case last October at the University of Saskatchewan, which was rocked by allegations that an esteemed health researcher and professor, Carrie Bourassa, was not a descendant of the Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit people, but entirely of European descent.
Such stories revive complex questions over what it means to identify as Indigenous in Canada: Are Indian status cards, an artifact of colonialism, a reliable proof? Is self-identification valid? If a First Nation community adopts a non-Indigenous person into their membership, does that person’s ancestry matter?
And another: “What does it mean to be kin?” said Kim TallBear, a professor in Native Studies at the University of Alberta.
“This is also where it gets difficult,” she told me. Being accepted as kin by an Indigenous community, or being enrolled in that community’s membership, does not equate to having Indigenous ancestry, she added.
Ms. TallBear, who is also American and the author of a book on tribal belonging and genetic science, said she had interacted with many Cherokee people in the United States who claimed they were Native based on having long-ago ancestry.
“But I have since come to find out that, in fact, most of them don’t,” she said. “These are outright multigenerational lies.”
[Read: The Native Scholar Who Wasn’t]
Indigenous people in Canada are afforded certain benefits designed to increase their participation in fields where they are underrepresented, such as academia.
As the national discussion over Indigenous identity and “pretendians” (short for “pretend Indians”) continues to grow, there have been calls for additional safeguards against impostors in universities.
“In the academy, you get rewarded for bringing a diverse perspective,” said Riley Yesno, an Anishinaabe researcher and fellow at the Yellowhead Institute. She pointed to special grants for Indigenous academics and the added attention of hiring committees as being among the “many ways that people can benefit from an Indigenous voice now.”
“I think people know that, and I think there are people who are not ashamed to capitalize on that,” Ms. Yesno said.
At the University of Saskatchewan, the allegations against Ms. Bourassa surfaced after some of her Indigenous colleagues investigated her past, suspicious of her shifting public descriptions of her background. She began her career claiming to be only Métis, but later adopted the two other heritages, according to reporting by the C.B.C., and began wearing more traditional Indigenous attire. Those colleagues, who said Ms. Bourassa deceived them and gained funding and credibility because of her claims, submitted a formal complaint to the university and a federal science funding body.
Ms. Bourassa has maintained in statements to Canadian news organizations that she is of Indigenous descent. But she was placed on an administrative leave as the university investigated, and she resigned from her position in June. One month later, the university released its new policy to address Indigenous membership and citizenship verification, which previously counted on self-identification.
Other institutions are also no longer accepting self-declared Indigenous identity without asking for proof. Queen’s University in Ontario recently moved to create an Indigenous Oversight Council to provide guidance on identity issues. The recommendations were made in a report published in July, following allegations that six employees, including professors, were falsely claiming to be Indigenous.
A similar conversation is taking place in other countries. In Australia, the University of Sydney recently proposed a new policy that would require a three-step identity test to qualify for designated Indigenous staff positions or student scholarships.
Investigating these allegations has sometimes taken on a “punitive way of thinking, and it’s very reactive,” said Ms. Yesno, referring to posts on social media targeting individuals in ways that can amount to doxxing, or revealing personal information, such as family lineage, online.
“We have to have conversations about this, I think, in ceremony, in places other than just in comment sections and on Twitter threads,” she added.
A punitive approach risks alienating people who might actually be of Indigenous descent but lack the documentation to prove it, such as those whose ancestors moved off reservations for economic opportunities, or were “disenfranchised from tribal enrollment” and are now trying to reconnect with their kin, Ms. TallBear said.
While the communities don’t have all the answers, Ms. TallBear said, there is no excuse for outright lies.
“If they’re lying and they’ve gotten job benefits or scholarship benefits, they should be required to figure out how to make restitution,” she said, likening fake identity claims to falsifying academic credentials.
Canada’s housing costs are among the highest in the world, and the bubbling real estate market has become so frothy that it has created a Catch-22 scenario for the country’s economy, writes Ian Austen. Despite the cooling real estate market, many Canadians can’t afford homes.
Hockey Canada’s leadership, including its chief executive and its entire board of directors, heeded calls to resign after months of public criticism and millions of dollars in canceled or paused corporate sponsorships. The organization came under fire for its handling of accusations of sexual assault by players.
A public inquiry began its work examining the federal government’s move to invoke never-before-used emergency powers to stamp out the “Freedom Convoy” protests last winter. The hearings will run for six weeks and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with other ministers and key protest actors, is expected to testify.
Vjosa Isai is a reporter-researcher for The New York Times in Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.
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