Indigenous academics 'validated' by report urging Queen's to verify identity claims

Several academics say the call for the Kingston, Ont., university to apologize and create a process to verify the Indigenous identity of staff could be a promising step forward. The report comes after a handful of school associates were accused of falsely claiming to be Indigenous.

32-page report calls on school to reassign or fire staff who don't meet requirements

A stone university building is seen from the air.
The report also condemned Queen's University's ongoing affiliations with a non-status community in eastern Ontario, the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, to which three of its staff and associates in question belong. (Patrick Morrell/CBC )

Several Indigenous academics say calls for Queen's University to apologize and create a process to verify the Indigenous identity of staff are validating and could be a promising step forward.

The recommendations come from an independent review of how the Kingston, Ont., university evaluates Indigenous identity when hiring people. They follow allegations that multiple people associated with the school were falsely claiming to be Indigenous.

Celeste Pedri-Spade, associate professor and Queen's National Scholar in Indigenous Studies, said she felt "validated" by the report.

The 32-page report from First Peoples Group, an Indigenous advisory firm, addressed "the clear concerns that many Indigenous stakeholders had," said Pedri-Spade, "particularly around how the institution was not necessarily implementing ways to ensure that people were who they say they were."

The seven recommendations in the report include the development of a department of Indigenous studies. 

They also call on the university to establish a validation policy for Indigenous faculty that — at minimum — should include citizenship or membership cards, plus a professional reference and references from a family member and an elected First Nation, Inuit or Métis leader. 

The report's authors said the university needs to address staff who don't meet the new requirements, from finding them alternate assignments to firing them.

Celeste Pedri-Spade is an associate professor at Queen's University and a member of Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation. She says she feels 'validated' by the recommendations in Friday's report. (Celeste Pedri-Spade/supplied)

Following the report's release Friday, principal Patrick Deane said the university would set up an Indigenous Oversight Council to advise the school on how to move forward. 

While the report's recommendations are a good step toward addressing the harms done to Indigenous students, faculty and staff, Pedri-Spade questioned how that oversight committee would be established.

"Will they be working in a way that … in a very timely way addresses and implements these recommendations?" she asked.

"Or is this yet another bureaucratic layer ... that's more about softening the blow, perhaps, to some of the folks who quite frankly have tenuous or false claims to Indigeneity at the institution?" 

'Ardoch is not a First Nation': report 

The report also condemned the university's ongoing affiliations with a non-status community in eastern Ontario, the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, to which three of its staff and associates in question belong.

They include:

Ardoch is not considered an Algonquin nation by the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council or the Algonquins of Ontario, nor is it recognized as a band or First Nation by the federal government. 

"Ardoch is not a First Nation despite it positioning itself as such," the report said.

Veldon Coburn, a professor of Indigenous studies and political science at the University of Ottawa, said he was glad the report "said what needed to be said" about Ardoch. 

"First Peoples Group really took a step forward with courage to speak truth to power here," said Coburn, a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation and an outspoken critic of Ardoch's legitimacy.

Veldon Coburn, pictured here in 2017, has been a vocal critic of Queen's University's relationship with Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. (CBC)

Future of accused associates uncertain

Despite the report's recommendation, Queen's has not committed to severing ties outright with Ardoch. 

"Queen's recognizes that we have a long historical relationship with Ardoch and that there has been cause for concern by many … about that relationship," said Janice Hill, the university's associate vice-principal of Indigenous initiatives and reconciliation.

The university is planning to "review our working relationship with Ardoch and any individuals on a case-by-case basis," she said. 

Hill would not share what would happen to staff members alleged to have falsely claimed Indigenous identity.

CBC reached out to all of the staff facing allegations but did not receive responses. The office of Ardoch Algonquin First Nation declined to comment when reached by phone.