Ottawa

Queen's review of policies on Indigenous identity claims rife with issues, say critics

While the university in Kingston, Ont., has refused to publicly disclose all involved in the review process, CBC News has learned that the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation was among those consulted, despite its role in the centre of the controversy.

Controversial Ardoch Algonquin First Nation participating in review process

Queen's University has refused to publicly disclose all the individuals and groups involved in the review of policies surrounding Indigenous identity claims. (Michelle Allan/CBC)

Ten months after Queen's University announced a review of how it evaluates Indigenous identity claims when hiring staff, critics say the process has been rife with problems, including potential conflict of interest and lack of transparency. 

While the school in Kingston, Ont., has refused to publicly disclose all the individuals and groups involved in the review process, which was completed in mid-March, CBC News has learned that the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation was among those consulted despite its role in the centre of the controversy.

The issue came to a head in June 2021 after an anonymous report alleged six individuals affiliated with the school had made misleading or false claims about their Indigenous identity.

Three of the people named are members of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation — a non-status community in eastern Ontario.

Queen's initially defended those individuals, but changed its position after nearly a hundred Indigenous academics and leaders across North America signed a letter asking the school to take the allegations seriously.

Why can't you tell us who's on this committee, or who's guiding some of the decisions?— Moshe Lander, Concordia University

The letter specifically called on Queen's to reject Ardoch, but Ardoch appears to have been the primary group representing Algonquins in the subsequent "dialogues on Indigeneity" consultations.

"The larger Algonquin Anishinaabe Nation does not recognize them," said Veldon Coburn, professor of Indigenous studies and political science at the University of Ottawa, who's been a vocal critic of Ardoch's legitimacy.

"[Ardoch] emerged out of a group of settlers and non-Algonquin people … It's not historical. It's a contemporaneous corporation. It just isn't Algonquin."

Ardoch is not a federally recognized band or First Nation. The Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council does not consider Ardoch an Algonquin nation, nor do the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) — which include 10 status and non-status Algonquin communities.

Coburn, a Queen's graduate, said he is disappointed that Queen's didn't do more to engage with Algonquin First Nations. 

WATCH | Veldon Coburn on Ardoch's involvement: 

Queen's University criticized over including Ardoch group in review

6 months ago
Duration 0:42
Ottawa professor Veldon Coburn says a group called Ardoch Algonquin should not be part of a review on Indigenous identity.

Another academic at Concordia University said appointing a group to review itself is potentially problematic. 

"This particular lack of transparency then even adds to the belief … that there is a perceived conflict of interest going on," said Moshe Lander, senior lecturer of economics whose specialty includes governance policy.

"Why can't you tell us who's on this committee, or who's guiding some of the decisions?" 

As part of the review process, Queen's ran at least 17 "group" sessions and 13 "individual" sessions through March 18. 

However, the school has refused to disclose groups involved in facilitating each of the sessions, citing "confidentiality reasons."

Queen's University said it will review how it assesses Indigenous identity claims when hiring staff after an anonymous report alleged six individuals falsely claimed Indigenous heritage. (Michelle Allan/CBC)

According to its website, they included members of the Akwesasne Mohawk Board of Education, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, Katarowki Grandmother's Council, Alderville First Nation, Tungasuvvingat Inuit and the Ontario Native Women's Association. In a subsequent email, the school said members of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation participated in, but did not lead any of the review sessions.

In a statement to CBC, Queen's said it is satisfied with the review process and the results will be shared in May.

"We are aware of the concerns with regards to Ardoch and the individuals associated with this community," it said.

Meanwhile, five of the six individuals accused of faking their Indigenous identities remain active with the school.

Lack of transparency, safety

The question of who is considered Indigenous, and by extension eligible for specific jobs and grants, has become a hot button issue in academia in recent years

While Queen's has posted public updates on its website about dialogue sessions taking place, there have been scant details on how they were run or what came out of them.

Janice Hill, Queen's associate vice principal of Indigenous initiatives and reconciliation, said there was low turnout to the dialogue sessions. She said this while answering questions about Queen's handling of the anonymous report and aftermath at the National Indigenous identity forum at the First Nations University of Canada in March.

"Accessibility of the sessions, personal connections to the issues and feelings of safety or lack of safety," were reasons she listed as to why other Indigenous members may have been reluctant to participate.

As for the university's initial response to the allegations, Hill said "Our original instinct to protect was what I believe kicked in, and it was to protect those people who were anonymously accused."

Hill did, however, allude to potential consequences should individuals be found to have made disingenuous claims, which range "from termination to finding alternative assignments at the university for those who have been found to not meet new requirements Queen's puts in place."

Majority of accused individuals still teaching

Through the course of the controversy, Queen's has terminated its relationship with one former associate.

Morris Blanchard, who also went by "Onagottay," lost his status as a celebrated artist on campus after his own family disputed his claims of being a victim of the Sixties Scoop

The rest of the accused individuals remain active academically.

Robert Lovelace — one of the academics whose identity came under scrutiny during the controversy — remains listed as a "continuing adjunct" professor at Queen's.

He helped found the Ardoch nation and was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Queen's Indigenous studies department.

This academic year, he taught a course titled "Indigenous Theory." According to its online description, students can expect to study the "meaning of Indigeneity" and "processes of re-Indigenization."

Ardoch council declined to comment on this story, but said in June that its history is well documented in colonial record and oral history.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly said there was low turnout at a separate forum in March.
    Apr 12, 2022 3:47 PM ET

now