Award-winning Queen's prof questioned over Indigenous identity claim
Indigenous groups question professor Bob Lovelace's heritage
An award-winning and influential Algonquin rights activist and professor at Queen's University faces mounting scrutiny over the legitimacy of his claim of Indigenous identity.
Robert (Bob) Lovelace, who won an award from the Kingston, Ont., university in 2016 for his years of "exemplary leadership in teaching, mentoring, and building the profile of Indigenous issues," is often credited for playing a pivotal role in establishing the Indigenous curriculum at Queen's.
A CBC News investigation, however, has revealed questions about Lovelace's Indigenous claims.
Earlier this month, an anonymous report circulated online alleging six people connected to Queen's, including Lovelace, made false claims about their Indigenous heritage.
Shortly after its publication, the university strongly rejected the report's allegations.
That rejection was then met by an open letter signed by almost 100 Indigenous academics calling on the university to examine the potential harm of misrepresentation among faculty and staff.
The letter articulated the thinking behind a growing movement among Canadian Indigenous leaders and scholars that demand universities and other public institutions reserve positions and grants earmarked for Indigenous people.
They say people with questionable Indigenous heritage should not hold those positions of influence because it undermines Indigenous autonomy and authority overall.
The letter also said that membership in Indigenous communities is a "matter of integrity and reciprocity" and that unilateral claims to these communities cast their legal order and protocols as "insufficient, 'primitive,' or backwards, and are a continued act of racism towards nations and societies Canada has violated repeatedly since European contact."
Ardoch First Nation under question
The letter also rejected the legitimacy of Lovelace's adopted Ardoch Algonquin First Nation (AAFN), where he once sat as chief, adding membership is based on distant "root ancestors, some of whom aren't even Algonquin."
Wendy Jocko, chief of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, says Ardoch is "not a First Nation" and includes "people who do not meet any of the criteria for belonging to the Algonquin Nation."
Ardoch is not registered as a band with the federal government, and is not participating in the current Algonquin land claim treaty negotiations involving 10 communities through the Algonquins of Ontario.
Its leadership has pushed back stating, "Ardoch has historically rejected the restrictive and discriminatory criteria associated with Indian Act policy."
Lovelace declined to comment.
Questions about Cherokee heritage
In past interviews, biographies and social media posts, Lovelace laid out identifying details about his family and claimed he was American Cherokee.
But a well-known Cherokee historian found no evidence Lovelace is an enrolled member of a Cherokee tribe, including no mention of Indigenous heritage among the professor's family members dating back five generations — all of whom were identified based on Lovelace's own disclosures.
David Cornsilk, a member of the Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma, is known for his role in investigating controversial Cherokee heritage claims made by prominent Americans such as Elizabeth Warren and Andrea Smith.
The search of birth, death and census records showed the people identified as family using Lovelace's disclosure were listed as white, said Cornsilk, who admitted tracing genealogy is imperfect.
"This family strikes out and it is my professional opinion they are not Cherokee," he said.
Cornsilk explained Cherokee records date back through the period known as the "Trail of Tears" in 1835 when the U.S. government forcibly removed 60,000 Native Americans from their lands. They are detailed and help provide evidence in assessing who can claim Cherokee ancestry, he added.
Lovelace also declined to comment on Cornsilk's findings.
In its latest response to CBC News, Queen's University said it would not comment on "matters regarding individual faculty members," but stands by its previous statements defending the Indigenous claims by faculty.
Adopted into Ardoch Algonquin First Nation
In a 2012 Facebook post, Lovelace said he was adopted as an adult to the AAFN in 1992, a group he helped found in the 1980s, and acknowledged "there is a very popular rumour that I am not Indian at all."
"Only one thing is really certain in my life as in yours; I will die an Algonquin," he wrote in the post, while also writing, "I am Tslagi (Cherokee) and I am proud to be Tslagi."
Lance Haymond, chief of the Kebaowek First Nation on Lake Kipawa in Quebec, said he questioned how a Cherokee person could suddenly become the leader of an Algonquin community.
"It tells me right off the bat there's a problem … The red flags are there," said Haymond.
The current land claim treaty being negotiated by the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) states adopting someone as an adult would not be enough to qualify one as Algonquin, according to AOO lawyer Robert Potts.
He explained the requirements include evidence of Algonquin ancestry, as well as modern-day connections to a recognized Algonquin community.
Potts said current estimates indicate 8,500 status and non-status Algonquins are enrolled in Ontario.
"Our process is extremely rigorous in comparison," he said.
Ardoch, however, argues the treaty process is not legitimate and says the AAFN "maintains the autonomous right" to determine its own membership.
"Ardoch refuses to be involved because it is a process that is firmly rooted in Colonial Law versus Algonquin Law," according to a statement.
Lovelace's rise to prominence
In that same 2012 post, Lovelace said he left the United States in 1969 to avoid military service in Vietnam.
His curriculum vitae, posted to the Queen's website, said he received a diploma in early childhood education at Algonquin College in Ottawa soon after his arrival in 1969.
He has taught Indigenous courses at Queen's since 1995.
In 1999, Lovelace led a legal fight on behalf of Ardoch in a bid to access casino revenue earmarked for federally recognized First Nations bands.
The suit, which tried to argue it was discriminatory to bar non-status communities from accessing casino proceeds, made it to Canada's top court before a unanimous decision stated the province had the right to exclude non-registered First Nations groups from casino money.
Arrest protesting uranium mining project
In 2008, Lovelace bolstered his reputation as a defender of Indigenous rights after he was arrested during a protest against a uranium mining project in Sharbot Lake.
He was later released and charges against him and other protesters were dropped.
He was involved in negotiations with the federal and provincial governments, as well as the mining company, to resolve the issue.
During that time, Lovelace spoke to media as an authoritative voice representing local Algonquin interests.
Queen's to consult on identity questions
Queen's University spokesperson Mark Erdman said the school will engage with "internal and external Indigenous communities" on the wider issue of Indigenous identity.
Last week, the university's provost Mark Green said the school would consult members of the school's Indigenous council made up of representatives from various Indigenous communities.
The only Algonquin representative on that council is a member of the AAFN leadership, while leaders such as Jocko and Haymond say they have not been contacted by the university to take part in any discussions.
"It affects the entire nation," said Haymond, "Cultural appropriation supported by lax policies and institutions need to be corrected."
- A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year that Lovelace said he was adopted to the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation.Jun 25, 2021 6:21 PM ET
With files from Jorge Barrera