British Columbia

Indigenous filmmaker wants fines, jail time for 'pretendians' who misrepresent their identity

A Haida filmmaker and several Indigenous elders are calling for federal legislation to authenticate Indigenous identity in Canada. The move comes shortly after award-winning filmmaker Michelle Latimer's identity claims were questioned by members of the Kitigan Zibi community.

Tamara Bell points to U.S. legislation with $250K fine or 5-year prison term for false representation

Tamara Bell, shown at a news conference on Monday, says the federal government must enact new rules to authenticate Indigenous identity.  (Mike Zimmer/CBC )

A Haida filmmaker is pushing for new legislation in Canada to penalize people who wrongly claim to be indigenous and access grants, awards and jobs intended for Indigenous people.

Tamara Bell said she wants those who misrepresent their identity to face fines and even prison time. In her press conference, Bell didn't distinguish between those who may intentionally misrepresent their identity and those who do it in error. 

Bell's move comes on the heels of Kitigan Zibi community members questioning filmmaker Michelle Latimer's claims to be of "Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Quebec."

Latimer, who recently directed the CBC television series Trickster and the documentary Inconvenient Indian, said she is an artist of mixed Indigenous and settler ancestry. She said she genuinely believed she had a legitimate connection to Kitigan Zibi when she made her claims, but said she made a mistake in naming that community before doing the work to verify the linkage. She said her claim rested on the "oral history" of her maternal grandfather and that she had recently traced one line of Indigenous ancestry dating back to the 1700s.

"I think as Indigenous people, we have to draw a line in the sand," Bell said Monday at a news conference in Vancouver. 

It's not clear if this proposed legislation would apply to someone in Latimer's situation.

Right now, most Canadian institutions — even those that administer funds allocated specifically for Indigenous people — use self-identification as the gold standard for identifying who is Indigenous. That means anyone can simply say "I am Indigenous" to authenticate their Indigeneity.

Some, such as Latimer and author Joseph Boyden, have accessed grant money, awards or other opportunities because they identified as Indigenous.

Over the years that he claimed to have an Indigenous identity, Boyden received awards and accepted speaking engagements intended for Indigenous people.

In 2005, Boyden was awarded the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award, which came with a $5,000 award.

He also received an honorary award from the Hnatyshyn Foundation when it launched its REVEAL Indigenous Art Awards to recognize Indigenous Canadian artists in 2017.

Boyden gave a series of paid keynote speeches in which he identified himself as an Indigenous person, including a keynote for the City of Winnipeg's summit on racial inclusion in 2015 and one for the Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute in 2016, where he spoke about having an Anishinaabe mother.

Speaking in support of Bell's proposed legislation, Métis Elder Corie Thunderchild said, "People can't just come in and squeeze out dollars. We've gone a long time being starved and we have to stand up."

'Canada often turns a blind eye'

Bell is proposing an Indigenous Identity Act, which she hopes will deter what she and others call "pretendians" from assuming Indigenous identity.

She pointed to legislation in the United States known as the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a truth-in-advertising law that makes it illegal "to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced." A first-time violation of the act could land a person a five-year prison term or a $250,000 fine, or both. 

"Unfortunately, Canada often turns a blind eye to the wholesale theft and exploitation of Indigenous identity, which has become a widespread problem all too frequently," Bell said.

Bell is calling on the Indigenous Screen Office, the Canada Media Fund, Telefilm Canada, CBC and the National Film Board to support the call for Indigenous authentication legislation. 

In a statement, the executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office, Jesse Wente, said the ISO "will undertake a community engagement process in 2021 regarding Indigenous identity that will inform future policy directions."

He said the process will start "over the next two months beginning with elders and Indigenous organizations with knowledge and expertise in this area, and will extend into the summer with broader consultations." 

Filmmaker Michelle Latimer is photographed in Toronto on Aug. 19, 2020. Kitigan Zibi community members have questioned Latimer's claims to be of 'Algonquin, Metis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Quebec.' (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The statement also explained "this is a nuanced issue that requires time to listen to the many different community perspectives ... we accept our responsibility in taking a leadership role for the sector on this important issue through this process."

Bell said she understands the sensitivity of the issue of Indigenous identity, with colonial apparatuses like residential school and the Sixties Scoop removing children from their communities and families. 

But she said there are still ways to verify Indigenous identities — one can get a letter from an elder, their community, a relative or their band to verify which community they are from.

"Right now it's a free for all," she said.

"There is no way to ensure every single individual is authentically Indigenous, but [this proposed act] could prevent misrepresentation, because there's a risk that you will be found out and there will be consequences."

Bell is supported by several Indigenous elders, including Elizabeth Sinclair from the Peguis First Nation, Gail Sparrow from the Musqueam Nation, and Corie Thunderchild from the Métis people. 

She said she is also in conversation with two Canadian senators. 

The CBC asked for comment from Indigenous Services Canada about its consideration of such an act. It said it is working on a response. 

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify that there are questions about Michelle Latimer’s Indigenous identity claims; to better reflect Latimer's understanding of her identity; and to clarify some details of the suggested legislation.
    Feb 04, 2021 9:26 AM PT
  • This story was updated to clarify details about the kinds of awards and opportunities author Joseph Boyden has received.
    Jan 27, 2021 9:00 AM PT
  • A previous version of the story said that the Indigenous Screen Office would undertake a community engagement process that would begin in the next two months. In fact, the process will begin over the next two months.
    Jan 19, 2021 7:10 AM PT

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea? angela.sterritt@cbc.ca

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