Universities across Canada addressing Indigenous identity fraud in wake of Carrie Bourassa investigation
First Nations University in Sask. planning for national dialogue on Indigenous identity
The University of Saskatchewan has agreed that in the future it will rely on the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S) and its citizenship registry to assess who qualifies for opportunities at the university intended for Métis people.
"We believe that a key part of reconciliation is recognizing that Indigenous communities define and verify their own memberships," U of S president Peter Stoicheff was quoted as saying in a Nov. 27 MN-S news release announcing the agreement.
The MN-S said that since June 2020, it has been calling on Saskatchewan post-secondary institutions to rely on its citizenship registry when awarding jobs or scholarships targeted at Métis people.
"This is a precedent-setting partnership between a Canadian University and a Métis Government," Glen McCallum, president of the MN-S, said.
The announcement comes one month after a CBC investigation revealed that U of S professor Carrie Bourassa, who for years has claimed to have Métis, Anishnaabe and Tlingit ancestry, had no proof of those claims.
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Since that time, she has been dismissed from her role as the scientific director of the Indigenous health arm of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. She has also been placed on leave from the U of S pending the outcome of an investigation into whether Bourassa misrepresented her ancestry in its dealings with the university.
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The day after the CBC story was published, MN-S released a statement condemning identity fraud, which it said is "a serious concern in the arts, academics and public services where funding, employment, advisory positions and other opportunities are targeted for Indigenous peoples." The statement added that the MN-S has established an "objectively verifiable registry of Métis citizens… based on an accepted common definition of Métis across Métis governments."
A national dialogue planned
For years, many universities in Canada have relied on self-identification, essentially an honour system, when offering jobs or other opportunities to Indigenous people. However, a series of scandals across the country involving high-profile people in the arts or academia falsely claiming Indigenous ancestry has increasingly caused Indigenous leaders and university administrators to conclude that self identification is no longer sufficient.
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Jacqueline Ottman, president of First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) in Regina and a Fishing Lake First Nation member, said Indigenous peoples have traditionally had a fairly simple way of determining identity.
"When we meet each other we ask where do you come from, who are your parents, what community and territory does your family come from?" said Ottman.
She said it's time for a national conversation about how to introduce these sorts of traditional concepts into the university system and that FNUniv is willing to help by hosting an event featuring a national dialogue on the topic.
While it's still in the planning stages, it "would be an exploration of what universities across the country are doing… because everybody's at a different phase in this development," Ottman said.
"Some [universities] feel they're completed. Some are just beginning. And so bringing people together to talk about the challenges related to perhaps developing a policy and addressing some of those issues together I think is very important."
She hopes to host the event sometime early next year.
It its statement, the U of R said it will set up an Indigenous advisory board to help review Indigenous employment credentials.
"We will develop policies and processes for vetting claims to Indigeneity in our recruitment and hiring practices for investigating allegations of Indigenous identity fraud," the Nov 5 statement says.
Comparisons to US cases
Chris Andersen, dean of the faculty of Indigenous studies at the University of Alberta, has studied issues of Indigenous identity and fraud for years. He said he's surprised by how quickly and decisively the U of S acted in the wake of the revelations about Bourassa.
He said he's also been pleasantly surprised by how many other Canadian universities have committed to changing their policies.
He said one reason the Bourassa story is having such immediate impact is because "it is startlingly similar" to the high profile American story of activist Rachel Dolezal.
Dolezal, president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was outed in 2015 as a white woman who identified as black. Her story was meticulously followed by national media in the U.S. and was the subject of a Netflix documentary. She also wrote an autobiography.
The story about Bourassa was quickly picked up by American and international media like the Washington Post and the U.K.-based newspaper the Guardian, which immediately noted the similarities with the Dolezal case.
Kim Tallbear, an Indigenous studies professor at the University of Alberta, said Bourassa's case is an interesting contrast to another high-profile American story.
In 2015, Tallbear and a group of other Indigenous scholars wrote an open letter to the publication Indian Country Today calling out American professor Andrea Smith, who claimed to be Cherokee despite having admitted "to four separate parties that she has no claim to Cherokee ancestry at all."
Earlier this year, the New York Times Magazine published an extensive investigation into Smith's claims entitled The Native Scholar who wasn't. The story asked why her career continued to thrive despite it being well known she had faked her Cherokee ancestry.
Tallbear noted that Smith still appears to have her job as a professor at the University of California, Riverside, though the university's website indicates she's on sabbatical. By contrast, Bourassa has been placed on leave and is under investigation.
"I did not expect such swift action in the Carrie Bourassa case. That was good," she said.
Tallbear said another interesting contrast is the way the two stories are being treated on social media.
While she's been fairly free to speak her mind about the Bourassa case on social media, she said that when she went public with concerns about Smith she was routinely attacked by other Indigenous people, "being called 'identity police' and intolerant."
Tallbear said the problem of "pretend Indians" is a systemic and widespread problem. She said she personally knows of dozens.
"It's an open secret," she said.
Looking in the mirror
Andersen hopes that the national conversation about Indigenous identity will help set consistent guidelines and eliminate fraud.
He said while the process should be led by Indigenous scholars, it should also include non-Indigenous leaders, he said.
"Non-Indigenous senior administrator leaders in the academy also have to pull their heads out of the sand or wherever it's currently stuck and start thinking seriously about these kinds of issues," he said.
Andersen said the revelations about Bourassa have forced him to look at his own actions.
He said that while he comes from a large and well-known Métis family, he has not pursued citizenship in a provincial Métis association. Instead, he merely self-identifies.
He said some of his Métis colleagues have challenged him since the Bourassa revelations, saying his actions are contradicting his words.
"One day I just looked in the mirror and I said yeah, they're right," Andersen said. "I have started the process of applying for a Métis card because I've ultimately just come to the conclusion that if I'm not going to respect the citizenship rules of the various Métis nations then I really have no business talking about other people who don't either."
- A previous version of this story indicated Andrea Smith said the problem of "pretend Indians" is a systemic and widespread problem. In fact, it was Kim Tallbear who said the problem of "pretend Indians" is a systemic and widespread problem.Nov 29, 2021 7:25 PM CT