Saskatchewan

Hundreds of Indigenous leaders take aim at false claims of Indigeneity

Hundreds of Indigenous scholars, administrators, students and elders from across Canada met virtually this week to talk about how to prevent people who falsely claim they are Indigenous from taking benefits that aren't intended for them. 

National Indigenous Identity Forum hosted by First Nations University of Canada this week

The First Nations University of Canada in Regina helped organize the national event aimed at eliminating identity fraud from academia. (Brad Bellegarde/CBC)

Hundreds of Indigenous scholars, administrators, students and elders from across Canada met virtually this week to talk about how to prevent people who falsely claim they are Indigenous from taking benefits that aren't intended for them. 

The National Forum on Indigenous Identity, held March 9 and 10, was organized by First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) in partnership with the newly formed National Indigenous University Senior Leaders' Association (NIUSLA). 

The event was announced last year after a CBC investigation into Carrie Bourassa, who at the time was Canada's leading Indigenous health scientist, found she had falsely claimed to be Indigenous. 

Jacqueline Ottmann, the president of FNUniv and co-chair of NIUSLA, said it is time for Indigenous people across the country to address this issue together. 

She said while there have been pretenders around for years, the problem is getting worse because of a growing number of scholarships, grants and jobs intended specifically for Indigenous people. 

"With the increase of these opportunities, it seems there has been an increase of people who are claiming Indigeneity," said Ottmann. 

Jacqueline Ottmann, the president of First Nations University of Canada, says it's time for Indigenous people to lead the way in addressing identity fraud. (CBC)

The by-invitation-only event had almost 400 Indigenous attendees who attended sessions and participated in group discussions aimed at identifying the problem and working on solutions. 

Ottmann said the purpose was to share and discuss best practices with a goal of eliminating identity fraud. 

"It may become more difficult for some people to claim Indigeneity, but it will ensure that Indigenous peoples are rightly identified and stepping into these positions," she said. 

Ottmann hopes this event will help focus the national dialogue.

"At the end of today, what we will do is we will begin analyzing the information and looking for themes and a report will be made public," she said.

Since the story about Carrie Bourassa broke, universities across Canada — Queens University, the University of Regina, Carleton University, the University of Calgary and many others — have announced they're working on policies to address the problems related to false claims to Indigeneity.

Ottmann said there does seem to be a consensus that the current system is a failure.

"What I've been hearing is that self-identification isn't working," she said.

Many universities work on an honour system, accepting someone's word that they are Indigenous. Ottmann said that's too open to abuse. She said any new system will need to consider whether the person claiming Indigenous ancestry is claimed by an Indigenous community.

She floated one possible solution.

"You would have another checkbox where a person could give permission for the university to investigate and check up on their community membership. So it's adding, I think, layers of accountability."

Ottmann said part of the solution will likely also be to rely more on things like Métis citizenship cards or status Indian cards to help authenticate identity.

She said it's unlikely that there will be a national standardized solution to this problem. She said the Indigenous community is complex and the solutions will have to be tailored to localized circumstances across Canada.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo is a Michener Award nominated investigative journalist and a Canadian Screen Award winning documentary producer and director. He has been covering Saskatchewan stories since 2001. Email Geoff at geoff.leo@cbc.ca.

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