Saskatchewan·Opinion

Many people claiming to be Indigenous do not share our collective experience

Today, it’s seemingly easy for people to claim Indigeneity and “self-declare” by checking a box when applying for school.

Some of us can't just turn off being Indigenous whenever it's convenient for us

Andre Bear is the former youth representative of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and co-chair of the Assembly First Nations National Youth Council. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

This Opinion piece is by Andre Bear, the former youth representative of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and co-chair of the Assembly First Nations National Youth Council.

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We need to address what makes someone Indigenous and clearly identify who can apply for Indigenous programming and scholarships in Canada. Today, it's seemingly easy for people to claim Indigeneity and "self-declare" by checking a box when applying for school. 

During my first day of law school, I remember being confused after attending the orientation for Indigenous law students, only to be surrounded by predominantly white people. 

When you think about joining something called the Native Summer Law Program, you would never imagine being one of the few visibly Indigenous people enrolled. Later, a friend of mine joked that she had also felt lost because she couldn't find any visibly Indigenous students. I was relieved that I wasn't the only person feeling out of place in my brown skin.

Many people believe that having Indigenous ancestry is enough to be considered First Nation, Métis or Inuit. 

These people are wrong.

More than ancestry

Being Indigenous on this land means much more than being able to point to an Indigenous ancestor. In most cases, there are distinct Inherent & Treaty rights that Indigenous peoples retain on this land. In this same context, when someone claims they're Indigenous, they're also claiming that they are survivors of genocide, intergenerational trauma and violent settler colonialism. 

But this isn't always the case. Many people who are claiming to be Indigenous do not share this collective experience of genocide. Many of them can actually benefit from it as white, wealthy or privileged people. 

It's not surprising that these people become the most successful in academic circles or become the go-to experts on Indigenous identity. This is why I believe the most notorious place for false claims of Indigenous identity is universities across the country.

I'm sure every student in my Native Summer Law program had some Indigenous ancestry, but I would often think to myself, "my biological grandmother is white too, but I don't go around claiming that I'm a white man."

We have to be careful about who we are uplifting while many oppressed Indigenous peoples are still being held down.- Andre Bear

One of my classmates who grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan admitted to only finding out he was part Métis the same year that he was accepted into the program. 

Meanwhile, I've heard of people from the program who no longer claim they are Indigenous, and others who have even denied they ever attended the program.

The Native Law Summer Program is still one the most important programs in the country that has been a gateway for hundreds of Indigenous legal professionals, including myself. But the bottom line is Indigenous-based programming and scholarships are meant to help Indigenous students overcome institutionalized racism, oppression and poverty.

Programs meant to help Indigenous peoples overwhelmed by real barriers

From my own perspective, I grew up in poverty with my sisters and a single mother who is an Indian Residential School Survivor. My mom lived her entire life with an array of undiagnosed mental illnesses caused by intergenerational trauma, which then developed into overt alcoholism. The legacy of Indian Residential Schools nearly eradicated my family. 

Today, I am blessed that my family has overcome all of this and that my upbringing had carried me throughout the collective experience of genocide that my people have now survived.

Yes, many white-passing Indigenous peoples can feel discrimination. Many have overcome poverty as well. But the people who claim to be Indigenous without the grief of intergenerational trauma — while enjoying white privilege and wealth — are consistently taking advantage of these programs in our schools.

These programs are intended to help Indigenous peoples that are overwhelmed by real barriers such as institutionalized racism, and not the ones who benefit from it.

Some of these people have spent their lives hiding their Indigeneity. Now that more opportunities including Indigenous programming and scholarships are available, checking the "Indigenous" box has become a growing trend.

It's actually a step forward that Indigenous peoples are becoming more of a trend, because we now have a better opportunity to be represented. But we have to be careful about who we are uplifting while many oppressed Indigenous peoples are still being held down.

Some of us can't just turn off being Indigenous whenever it's convenient for us.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andre Bear graduated with his Bachelors of Education degree and is now pursuing a Juris Doctor of Law with the University of Saskatchewan. He is the former youth representative of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Co-Chair of the Assembly First Nations National Youth Council. In 2016, Andre was appointed as an advisor to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Canada for the implementation of TRC Call to Action 66. At 26 years old, Andre most recently served on the Indigenous Bar Association Board of Directors and now serves on the Canadian Juries Commission.

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