Michelle Latimer breaks silence, presents ancestry report following questions about Indigenous identity

An academic used by filmmaker Michelle Latimer to research her Algonquin and Métis identity claims is also providing expert evidence for a Quebec court case that, according to an Algonquin chief, could threaten the rights of the First Nation she initially claimed as her family's community.

Filmmaker commissioned report from expert providing testimony for Quebec court case over Métis rights

Michelle Latimer on the set of Trickster directing a scene. (CBC)

An academic used by filmmaker Michelle Latimer to research her Algonquin and Métis identity claims is also providing expert evidence for a Quebec court case that, according to an Algonquin chief, could threaten the rights of the First Nation she initially claimed as her family's community.

Latimer ended months of silence last week to discuss the findings of a report on her ancestry and to say she has "contemporary kinship ties" to Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, an Algonquin First Nation about 120 kilometres north of Ottawa.

In a Q&A with the Globe and Mail, Latimer said she commissioned two academics to investigate her genealogy. She said their conclusions supported her claims.

"I am a non-status Algonquin of mixed blood, Métis, French Canadian heritage," she told the newspaper. 

"And that's what I can stand by with truth." 

Latimer, in a blog post published May 11, says she is "a direct descendant of a dispersed Indigenous people from upriver in Baskatong, Quebec." 

Baskatong, a now-vanished community also known as Baskatong Bridge, was a Catholic mission north of Kitigan Zibi, where French Canadians lived with Algonquin. 

Latimer, the former director of the CBC TV series Trickster, commissioned the report after facing scrutiny for claiming to be of "Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Que." in an Aug. 14, 2020 National Film Board news release about her documentary Inconvenient Indian. The claim caught the attention of Kitigan Zibi members who began questioning her family connection to the community. She resigned from the series last year.

Some of the threads that run through Latimer's ancestral findings and conclusions also weave through legal battles fought for years in Eastern Canadian courts that have roiled established First Nations. 

One of the co-authors of Latimer's report is Sebastien Malette, an associate professor of law and legal studies at Carleton University. Malette is helping a group claiming Indigenous rights as Métis in Maniwaki, Que., which is within the homelands of Kitigan Zibi. The case involves a member of the Maniwaki group claiming an Aboriginal right under the Constitution to maintain a hunting camp on Crown land. 

Malette's work purports the existence of Métis in parts of eastern Canada, a theory rejected by other Métis scholars. The Métis homeland is generally viewed as being west of the Great Lakes.  

Kitigan Zibi Chief Dylan Whiteduck said the case could degrade Algonquin rights over lands and resources. He said the leadership is considering intervening  

"It does have long-term impacts on the [Algonquin] nation, especially Kitigan Zibi First Nation," said Whiteduck.

Dylan Whiteduck is chief of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. (Jean-François Poudrier/Radio-Canada)

He said it would allow the group to "start self-proclaiming in areas that they think are theirs, which is absurd. They would start saying it's their rights . . . to trap, hunt, fish . . . That is what the end goal of this case is all about, to try and take away the rights rightfully inherited by First Nations to this land." 

Whiteduck said, after reading Latimer's interview in the Globe, that only the Algonquin can determine who is a member of their nation — and he does not consider Latimer part of it. 

'No legal determination'

Malette said in an emailed statement that no legal determination has been made on the historical status of the Métis community of Maniwaki and he plans to provide expert testimony when the case goes to trial in the summer of 2022. He has already provided an expert report and testimony during an earlier hearing.

"The perceived threat that would play Métis in Québec against First Nation and Inuit sovereignty is often exaggerated and instrumentalized in various debates; it moreover ignores the existing jurisprudence on this subject," Malette wrote. 

"There are judiciary principles and mechanisms in place for negotiating and settling disputes between Indigenous peoples, which does not lead to any side necessarily losing out."

Over the past two decades, there have been dozens of similar cases from groups and individuals claiming Métis rights in Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. None have so far succeeded.  

A French-language book Mallette co-authored called Bois-Brûlés: The Untold Story of the Métis of Western Québec won the 2020 Prix du Canada from the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.  The federation's Indigenous Advisory Circle resigned shortly after the book's win.

The authors said in a statement issued at the time that the Métis in Eastern Canada "were denied the possibility of forming communities leaving vulnerable members of their diaspora adrift." 

Their statement said that their book was based on an analysis of the "ethnohistorical record" to show the existence of a Métis community in Quebec's Outaouais region, despite the denial of its existence by "certain currents in Indigenous studies" and government.

"We understand that such work can offend the sensibilities of some readers who believe in a certain definition of identity and uphold the politics surrounding that definition," their statement said.

"We do hope at the end of the day that our work will encourage respectful dialogue."

Questions raised 

The questions about Latimer's Indigenous identity mounted after questions surfaced within the film industry.

Latimer confirmed in her blog post, as previously reported by CBC News, she was asked by producers of Inconvenient Indian to be "specific" about her roots, which led to the NFB news release. She wrote that she never intended to suggest she was a member of Kitigan Zibi or had First Nations status.

"The intention behind my recent naming of Kitigan Zibi was to geographically situate my identity, as I am verifiably connected to the complicated historical and cultural reality of the "Algonquin halfbreed" or Métis population of the Gatineau Valley. This complexity has been painted as though I was attempting to fabricate or appropriate a false identity for personal gain. This is simply not true," Latimer wrote.

"I sincerely apologize for naming the community of Kitigan Zibi publicly before I had done all of the necessary work to understand the connection," said Latimer in a previous emailed statement to CBC News. A similar statement was issued publicly in December through Facebook.

Concerns from Kitigan Zibi members led to a CBC News investigation that found Latimer had two Indigenous ancestors dating back to the 17th century in her direct lineage. The genealogical report commissioned by Latimer followed the same genealogical lines, according to the Globe.

Latimer did not respond to emailed or phoned requests for comment. She has served CBC News with a libel notice.

Latimer stated in her blog post she has a connection to Kitigan Zibi through the marriage of her great-grandfather's brother to Cecilia Natowesi. Natowesi's descendants live in Kitigan Zibi.

'Her ancestors lived in an Indigenous world'

Latimer wrote that this connection provided her "contemporary kinship" to Kitigan Zibi Elder Annie Smith St. Georges, who was previously an elder of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.  

Smith St. Georges said Latimer approached her for help. 

"And my role, if somebody requests something, I help them," she said.

Algonquin Elder Annie Smith St-Georges, right, and her husband Robert. (Facebook)

Smith St. Georges said there was a link from her family to Latimer's ancestral lineage through marriage. 

She said she believed Latimer has Indigenous ancestry and that she needed to keep searching, because the journey to truly knowing where you come from and who you are takes years.

"She has Indigenous ancestry — her ancestors lived in an Indigenous world," said Smith St. Georges.

"She has to travel a little more on the canoe." 

Latimer also wrote in the blog post that her ancestry goes through "a number" of "Algonquin ancestors" recorded in 1721 by the mission at Lake of Two Mountains, by Oka, Que.  

"My mixed Algonquin and French Canadian heritage, in particular, was reinforced over five generations of residency and intermarriages between Algonquin and French Canadians in the unceded Algonquin territory of western Quebec and, later, spanned across the Ottawa River into Northeastern Ontario," wrote Latimer.    

In her blog post, Latimer wrote she learned about her heritage and culture from her grandfather, a hunting and fishing guide. 

"His knowledge and respect for the land was a gift he passed down and it continues to shape who I am today."

In later years, Latimer said she and other artists fostered an urban Indigenous community.

'I remain a dedicated advocate for Indigenous representation and the autonomy to tell stories that celebrate Indigenous culture, resilience, and resistance," Latimer wrote. 

'The hurt I feel' 

Prominent lawyer Jean Teillet, the great-grand niece of Métis leader Louis Riel, said she read Latimer's words in the Globe article. 

"From my perspective, it's a fantasy," said Teillet, who successfully argued the landmark Powley decision on Métis rights before the Supreme Court and published a book on Métis history called The Northwest is our Mother

"I think it's very damaging for the legitimate Métis community, for the legitimate Algonquin community," Teillet said. 

"Most of the legitimate Métis groups … they don't accept people who just find an ever-so-great grandmother back in the 1600s. That doesn't work. That is not a culture. It's just a genealogical fact."

A lawyer speaks outside a courtrom.
Lawyer Jean Teillet is an author of a book on Métis history and is the great-grand niece of Métis leader Louis Riel. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Researcher Darryl Leroux, who has written a book on growing claims of Métis identity in Eastern Canada and has critiqued Malette's work in the past, still has questions about Latimer's telling of her history — from having Algonquin ancestors at Lake of Two Mountains to the intermarriage claims.

"Proximity to Indigenous people does not make one Indigenous," said Leroux, an associate professor in the department of social justice and community studies at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

Kyle St-Amour Brennan said he initially introduced Latimer to the band official in charge of membership to help in her search. He said he had reached out to Latimer in early autumn after word circulated about her claimed connection to the community and they spoke on the phone about three times. 

The Kitigan Zibi member now regrets the decision after reading her published words in the Globe and her blog post. 

"The frustration, the hurt I feel and, slightly, a sense of embarrassment … In the end this is just going to result in further marginalization of my community," said St-Amour Brennan, a band member who has paternal ancestors from Baskatong.

Kitigan Zibi Chief Whiteduck said, "I do think unfortunately Ms. Latimer is being led wrongfully."