Carrie Bourassa's suspension 'bittersweet,' says Métis professor who brought complaint to U of S
University of Saskatchewan Prof. Caroline Tait says tenured professors have responsibility to tell the truth
A Métis professor at the University of Saskatchewan who raised concerns about prominent academic Carrie Bourassa's claims to Indigenous ancestry says the school's recent decision to put Bourassa on leave is a step in the right direction.
Bourassa, a U of S professor and the scientific director of the Indigenous health arm of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), has been put on leave from both institutions after CBC's investigation into her claims to Indigeneity sparked online outrage. The U of S also announced Monday that it had launched an investigation into Bourassa's claims.
Bourassa, who headed up an Indigenous research lab at the U of S and the CIHR's Institute of Indigenous Peoples' Health, had publicly claimed to be Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit. CBC found there was no evidence she was Indigenous, despite her claims that she was many times over the past 20 years.
When asked, Bourassa hasn't offered any genealogical evidence to back up her claims, but in a statement she said that two years ago she hired a genealogist to help her investigate her ancestry and that work continues.
Caroline Tait, a professor in the department of psychiatry at U of S, had been looking into Bourassa's ancestry claims for quite a while along with some colleagues. She filed a complaint to the university about the issue.
"One of the most difficult challenges for all of us was that Carrie Bourassa was supervising students and giving lectures, going to conferences, and interacting with our elders," said Tait, who is Métis.
"When the news came out, [we knew] that there would be people that were very hurt and particularly the students. The most difficult piece of this is the people who looked up to her."
Tait said she is pleased that the university is pursuing an investigation as it is an appropriate opportunity for Bourassa to defend her position.
Academic integrity played part in complaint
Tait said Bourassa being put on leave is "bittersweet," because she and her colleagues had not "set out to confirm that Carrie Bourassa wasn't Indigenous."
She said they wanted to know if she was being dishonest and that they set out as researchers "to find the truth."
Tait said their intent was never to publicly shame Bourassa but instead to combat the prevalent identity fraud among Indigenous scholars.
"If the identity fraud is an epidemic across the country, then this example that we have before us is a catalyst to start a national conversation. We need a national committee made up of Indigenous lawyers, cultural people, our elders and knowledge keepers from the different places and cultural vantage points to push that conversation," she said.
Tait said that in 2018, Bourassa was staying at her house. She said it was then that she suggested to Bourassa that she should show everyone her genealogy to put all the rumours to rest.
"We were bringing this forward not only because of Indigenous people bringing forward that someone claiming to be Indigenous is not, but also because of academic integrity."
Tait said tenured professors have the responsibility to tell the truth and are held to the highest standards.
She said it was heartening to see that although they were upset, "the Métis women were mobilizing … locally here in Saskatoon."
Tait said she was initially surprised by the university and CIHR's support for Bourassa, but that their decisions to put her on leave represented progress.
"I think the university may have taken a slight misstep. I think they have corrected the misstep."
She said she hopes the investigation committee will be composed of all Indigenous people, including Indigenous lawyers and elders.
Going forward, Tait said she wants to see a process of trust building among students, faculty and staff at the university. She said what is happening with Bourassa might worsen the withering trust Indigenous people held generally in university research.
Tait is also worried it would mean more scrutiny for Indigenous people.
"There's going to be increased scrutiny over every Indigenous person, whether it's a student or a staff member, and so now, it will land on our shoulders to prove who we are. So every meeting I go into now, without people asking, I pull out my Métis citizenship card," she said.
Bourassa usurped resources, professor says
Raven Sinclair, a professor of social work at University of Regina, told CBC's The Current that when the investigative report came out, "it was really quite shocking" to see the suspicions were "in fact reality."
"It has to do with material gain and advantage of position, power, authority and role," she said. "A lot of things come down to money. There must be rewards that start to accrue and those become incentive in themselves to continue with this charade."
Sinclair said Bourassa usurped culture and resources from individuals who were on a similar career trajectory, and that such events affect Indigenous participation in the economy.
"We take those community relations at face value, so when these suspicions come up, it is somewhat contrary to our values of relationality to challenge people. We don't assume somebody's history or stories they share about their experiences are fabrications."
Sinclair said she can track her genealogy back to 10 generations on her mother's side and five on her father's.
"Just saying you are Indigenous isn't acceptable," she said.
With files from Geoff Leo, Julia Peterson and The Current