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Queen's University response to false Indigenous identity claims 'concerning,' say academics

Dozens of academics from across North America have signed an open letter calling on Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., to retract its statement defending faculty and staff members who were accused of falsely claiming Indigenous identity in an anonymous dossier.

Kingston, Ont., university sends new statement Tuesday after calls for a retraction

An open letter signed by dozens of academics is criticizing the 'knee-jerk' reaction by Queen's University to an anonymous report alleging six individuals affiliated with the university have few or no Indigenous roots. (Frédéric Pepin/CBC)

Dozens of academics from across North America have signed an open letter calling on Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., to retract its statement defending faculty and staff members who were accused of falsely claiming Indigenous identity in an anonymous dossier.

"Queen's response is really concerning," said Mi'kmaw lawyer Pam Palmater, chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University. 

"It was done so quickly," she said. "It appears to be a knee-jerk reaction, and it was done without consultation with the First Nations that it impacts or with the wider Indigenous faculty and staff and students at Queen's University."

The letter comes less than a week after an anonymous report surfaced online, alleging six individuals affiliated with the university have few or no Indigenous roots, despite having claimed otherwise throughout their careers. 

CBC has not verified claims made in the anonymous report, which was last edited on June 10. It includes an appendix of what appears to be historic documents, including marriage certificates and census data dating back hundreds of years. 

Palmater is among a growing list of people who signed the letter, which criticizes Queen's for ignoring questions raised about its screening process.

She said schools have a responsibility to make sure that positions, as well as grants and funding specifically ear-marked for Indigenous peoples, actually go to them "and not just anybody who ticks a box." 

"Imagine if I could apply to a law firm and say I identify as a lawyer, but you don't get to ask me for my credentials," she said. "That would never fly."

University 'doubled down'

Other signatories include Canada Research Chair holders such as Pierrot Ross-Tremblay from the University of Ottawa, Jennifer Adese from the University of Toronto Mississauga and Damien Lee from Ryerson University. 

"Queen's University did what perhaps most settler-colonial institutions would do," reads part of the letter.  

"They doubled down, ignored troubling information about several of their employees, issuing a statement before coordinating any meaningful dialogue with all of the Indigenous faculty and staff at Queen's and with people within Indigenous communities."

"It is unacceptable for universities to simply use an honour system when it comes to verifying the legitimacy of claims made by any faculty, staff or student claiming to be Indigenous," the letter continues.

New statement Tuesday

Queen's University did not respond to a request for reaction to the latest open letter in time for publication.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the school said the 27-member Indigenous Council of Queen's University accepts the people in question are Indigenous.

The statement was signed by provost Mark Green and associate vice-principal of Indigenous initiatives and reconciliation, Kanonhsyonne Janice Hill, who are both Mohawk. It agreed with many of the topics mentioned in the academic open letter, specifically mentioning the complexities of Indigenous identity and how it relates to hiring.

This follows a statement four days ago rejecting the anonymous report and saying it was investigating its origins, adding that the university "respects and trusts the Indigenous protocols used to identify those it considers Indigenous."

This week's Queen's letter argued the university did not completely reject the report.

"Rather, being privy to authentic personal records, [we] were able to assess and determine that the report had cited erroneous records and ignored important facts," the latest statement said.

One of the signatories said the decision is not up to Queen's — or any university. 

"As primarily non-Indigenous institutions, universities are not the arbiters of who belongs with Indigenous nations, nor are they in the position to determine which communities are Indigenous and which ones do not," wrote Damien Lee, Canada Research Chair in Biskaabiiyang and Indigenous Political Resurgence, in an email to CBC.

"That is for Indigenous nations to decide amongst themselves."

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