Profile

Vancouver city councillor wrestles with newfound Indigenous identity

Andrea Reimer, Vancouver city councillor, is a long-time First Nations ally. Now Reimer is wrestling with a surprise discovery and the complicated issues it brings with it: she herself has Indigenous ancestry.

Andrea Reimer discovers her birth mother has Cree/Metis background

Vancouver city councillor and long-time First Nations ally Andrea Reimer, right, is wrestling with a surprise discovery. Reimer, who is adopted, recently found out that she herself has Cree/Metis ancestry. (Andrea Reimer)

When Vancouver declared itself a "City of Reconciliation," councillor Andrea Reimer was the plan's non-Indigenous champion. She pushed for street signs using Indigenous place names, new urban Indigenous housing projects, even set out to learn the Skwomesh language herself.

Now, the 45-year-old former deputy mayor and long-time First Nations ally is wrestling with a surprise discovery. She herself has Indigenous ancestry.

"It feels like I'm forsaking a birth family and a heritage to not acknowledge it," says Reimer.

"But I feel like if I do acknowledge it, I'm assuming an identity that isn't mine to assume. And frankly, it's very hard to piece together."

Reimer, right, was adopted when she was six months old. She met her birth mother, Lynn L’Heureux, for the first time in the fall of 2017. (Courtesy Andrea Reimer)
Reimer was adopted when she was six months old. She grew up in a family that placed little importance on ethnic identity, but traced its roots to Dutch, Welsh and Russian immigrants.

She knew little about her birth family and felt no compulsion to learn more.

Then, in 2015, the Saskatchewan government contacted her. One of Reimer's birth sisters had tracked her down, hoping to connect.

She finally met her two half-sisters last year.

"Both of them told me within the first three minutes, 'So you know we're Métis and Cree, right?,' Reimer says. "Well, how would I know that?"

Bloodlines

Reimer learned her maternal grandfather, Fernand L'Heureux, was Métis from Jackfish Lake, Sask.

Her maternal grandmother, Myrtle Nault, was Cree, originally hailing from southern Alberta.

"When I first saw the picture of my grandmother, I thought, 'Oh my god. This person is my blood,'" Reimer says.

"It's the first time I'd seen someone that looks like me. That felt good. Is that cultural? It definitely felt like identity to me. It felt really good."

Myrtle Nault was Reimer's birth grandmother. 'It's the first time I'd seen someone that looks like me,' Reimer says. (Courtesy Andrea Reimer)
A cousin gave Reimer a book of family history, and she discovered online documents confirming her great-great-grandfather had accepted Métis scrip. Some of her ancestors were involved in the Métis uprisings of the 1880s.

Reimer finally arranged to meet her birth mother, Lynn L'Heureux, this fall. After a first meeting in a pub where "there was a lot to say after 45 years," they've started to build a relationship.

"It really does feel like coming home. It sounds super cheesy, but I felt like I was meeting a different version of myself," Reimer says.

Still, as a political figure often centre-stage at Indigenous public gatherings, she isn't sure whether to call herself "Indigenous."

"When I look at people who have spent their whole lives clearly identifying as being someone from somewhere, and connected to family lines that go back thousands of years on that land and fighting for that, there's something so callous about the idea that someone would show up and say 'Hey, I'm one of you too!,'" Reimer says.

Identity crisis

Unsure of what to do, Reimer decided to seek advice from Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation.

Having stood side-by-side Reimer at events such as the Walk For Reconciliation, he urged her to celebrate her heritage.

"It takes time and it's a process for Andrea to continue on that journey of discovery, to identify her family history and her roots," says Campbell.

Fernand L’Heureux (Métis) and Myrtle Nault (Cree), Reimer's maternal grandparents, settled in Jackfish Lake, Sask. (Courtesy Andrea Reimer)
"I don't think she's alone in this effort," he adds. "There are a number of people I've met in my own journey who have been adopted or displaced that are coming back to search for their own identity as First Nations."

But when it comes to identifying who is Métis, questions become more complex still.

Historically, the term "Métis" has been used to define a category of persons with mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous heritage.

By contrast, some Métis groups suggest one must descend from a distinct people who populated land and communities across Western Canada during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Recent court victories affirming the legal rights of Métis — to hunt and fish, for example — have spurred more to self-identify, and claims of Métis ancestry have risen dramatically. In the 2016 census, there were 587,545 people who self-identified as Métis, almost triple the population 20 years ago.

"What you're seeing in central and eastern Canada is people who are making claims to Indigeneity and Métis-ness, based on genealogical or DNA connections back 300 to 400 years," says Chris Andersen, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.

Reimer’s great-grandfather was Danny Nault (fourth from left), part of a large Métis family with roots in the Red River Valley. (Courtesy Andrea Reimer)
"It's not the ancestry that makes you Indigenous, it's the connection to family and community," Andersen adds. "What's really cool [about Reimer's case) ... is the fact that she's doing that really hard, but crucial, work of connecting to family."

Reimer admits the controversy surrounding Canadian author Joseph Boyden raised further self-doubts.

Boyden's self-identification as Métis and First Nations put him at the centre of controversy after journalists revealed his Indigenous lineage is questionable.

Daniel Justice, a professor of First Nation and Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, sees no parallel between Boyden and Reimer, since it was her birth family who sought her out. Justice argues connection to kin is an essential aspect of Indigenous identity.

"If you've lived your life with privileges of whiteness, it's not about person's right to make a claim. It's about what they do with the responsibilities of the relationship," Justice says.

"That's an important distinction. We often don't see that from the people with the great-great-grandmothers who are Métis or Cherokee princesses."

Journey of reconnection

For Reimer's part, she says it's been complicated confronting questions of Indigenous identity.

"I realize it's even more awful to appropriate identity than I had intellectually considered before. At same time, I think there are thousands of us who are sort of stuck between these two worlds."

Reimer announced in the fall that she won't seek re-election in Vancouver. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Justice says Reimer is right to feel hesitation about the identity question, and asks why it's necessary to make her ancestry public.

"She should maintain that sense of uncertainty," cautions Justice. "Are we making a claim to belonging in order to locate ourselves? Or are we making a claim to belonging in order to affirm our commitments to our families and our communities?"

But Chris Andersen applauds Reimer's "slow and careful" approach to reconnecting to her Métis roots.

Reimer, centre, with her child Roan, right, at the Walk for Reconciliation in 2013. They plan to make an 'epic journey' this summer to visit sites that are tied to their family's history. (Courtesy Andrea Reimer)
"Maybe five or 10 years from now, she'll feel more comfortable. Or maybe she won't. It's up to her, in her personal journey."

Reimer announced this fall she won't seek re-election. She hopes to finalize the creation of an Indigenous healing centre in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside before her term on city council ends, but has no future job plans yet.

She is, however, planning a family trip next summer that includes visiting a Métis aunt in the B.C. interior, spots where her Cree grandmother grew up in south-central Alberta, and the community of Jackfish Lake where her grandparents lived.

"We can just make a big epic journey of it," Reimer says.

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.