With a feather in her hand and a bright blue shawl and Métis sash draped over her shoulders, Carrie Bourassa made her entrance to deliver a TEDx Talk at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in September 2019, where she detailed her personal rags-to-riches story.
“My name is Morning Star Bear,” she said, choking up. “I’m just going to say it — I’m emotional.”
The crowd applauded and cheered.
“I’m Bear Clan. I’m Anishinaabe Métis from Treaty Four Territory,” Bourassa said, explaining that she grew up in Regina’s inner city in a dysfunctional family surrounded by addiction, violence and racism.
She said her saving grace was her Métis grandfather, who would often sit her on his knee and tell her “you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer.”
“He would make me repeat it over and over as there was chaos going on, usually violence,” Bourassa said. “And why would he make me say that? Because there was nobody in my family that had ever gone past Grade 8.”
WATCH | Carrie Bourassa acknowledges her relations during a 2019 TEDx Talk:
As it turns out, Bourassa went on to become one of the most prominent and respected voices on Indigenous health in the country. She is a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, where she directs the Morning Star Lodge, an Indigenous community-based health research lab.
She is also the scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health, a federal agency that is the leading funder of Indigenous health research in Canada.
In an email, the CIHR calls Bourassa “a Métis woman, a highly regarded Indigenous researcher” who “has been a selfless leader and a tireless champion for all Indigenous Peoples in this country.”
Earlier this week, CIHR took to Twitter to celebrate that Bourassa was just named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women for 2021 by WXN, a Toronto-based women’s advocacy group.
In addition to claiming Metis and Anishinaabe heritage, Bourassa has also asserted that she’s a descendant of the Tlingit, a small group of Indigenous people from the Yukon and British Columbia.
But some of her colleagues, like Winona Wheeler, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, say Bourassa’s story is built on a fundamental falsehood.
Wheeler, a member of Manitoba’s Fisher River Cree Nation, says genealogical records show Bourassa is not Indigenous at all, but rather of entirely European descent.
“When I saw that TEDx, to be quite honest, I was repulsed by how hard she was working to pass herself off as Indigenous,” Wheeler told CBC. “You’ve got no right to tell people that’s who you are in order to gain legitimacy, to get positions and to get funding. That’s abuse.”
Janet Smylie, a Métis family medicine professor from the University of Toronto who wrote a chapter in a 2017 book on Indigenous parenting edited by Bourassa, says she has recently learned the truth about Bourassa’s identity after conducting her own research.
“It makes you feel a bit sick,” said Smylie. “To have an impostor who is speaking on behalf of Métis and Indigenous people to the country about literally what it means to be Métis … that’s very disturbing and upsetting and harmful.”
In its review of Bourassa’s genealogy, CBC has traced all of her ancestry lines back to Europe. CBC was unable to locate any Indigenous ancestor.
Bourassa declined CBC’s request for an interview, but in an email to CBC on Tuesday, she said she’s “deeply offended by anyone disputing my links to the Métis community.”
Bourassa didn’t offer any genealogical evidence that she is Métis, Anishnaabe or Tlingit. Instead, she said she became Métis in her 20s, when she was adopted into the community by a Métis friend of her grandfather, Clifford Laroque, who has since died.
“Even though Clifford passed, those bonds are even deeper than death because the family has taken me as if I was their blood family. In turn, I serve the Métis community to the best of my ability,” she wrote.
She says she has been adopted into five other communities as well. She didn’t offer any explanation as to why she claimed to have been born into a family with Métis, Anishnaabe and Tlingit roots.
In a statement released by Bourassa after CBC’s story was published, she reiterated that she identifies as Métis and that the elders who support her do not rely on “blood quantums” to assess Indigenous identity. She said that she has hired a Métis genealogist to investigate her ancestry.
‘The modern-day Grey Owl’
Caroline Tait, a Métis professor and medical anthropologist at the U of S, has worked with Bourassa for more than a decade.
She said early on in Bourassa’s career, she only identified as Métis. But more recently, Tait said, Bourassa began claiming to also be Anishinaabe and Tlingit. Tait said she also began dressing in more stereotypically Indigenous ways, saying the TEDx Talk was a perfect example.
“Everybody cheers and claps, and it’s beautiful,” said Tait. “It is the performance that we all want from Indigenous people — this performance of being the stoic, spiritual, culturally attached person [with] which we can identify because we’ve seen them in Disney movies.”
Tait said Bourassa’s shifting ancestry claims made her and other colleagues suspicious. They also recently learned that Bourassa’s sister had stopped claiming to be Métis after she examined her genealogy. So Tait, Wheeler, Smylie and others decided to review that genealogy for themselves.
“We start to see that no, as a matter of fact, [Bourassa’s ancestors] are farmers,” Tait said. “These are people who are Eastern European people. They come to Canada, they settle.”
Tait said genealogical records show that Bourassa’s supposed Indigenous ancestors were of Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakian descent.
“There was nowhere in that family tree where there was any Indigenous person,” said Wheeler.
Tait was so troubled by what she found that, with the support of Wheeler and others, she compiled the information in a document and submitted formal academic misconduct complaints against Bourassa with the U of S and the CIHR. In her email to CBC, Bourassa said the U of S complaint was dismissed.
“She is not Métis. She is the modern-day Grey Owl,” Tait said, referring to the famous British-born conservationist from the early 1900s who fooled the world into believing he was a Native American man.
CBC independently examined genealogical records related to Bourassa’s ancestry, including birth certificates, ship passenger manifests, census records, probate files, newspaper clippings and local family histories.
CBC also examined Bourassa’s public claims about her ancestry. The most specific account CBC was able to locate was in a 2018 talk she delivered at the Health Sciences North Centre in Sudbury, Ont., when she addressed her relationship to the Tlingit.
WATCH | Carrie Bourassa’s public claims about her ancestry from a 2018 talk:
Bourassa said she first learned about that connection 16 years ago, during a mysterious naming ceremony when she says she received the spirit name Ts’iotaat Kutx Ayanaha s’eek, or Morning Star Bear.
She told the audience she was puzzled to learn her spirit name was in the Tlingit language.
“I couldn’t understand why my name would come in Tlingit when I’m an Anishinaabe Métis. It was very confusing to me,” said Bourassa.
She said she met a Tlingit elder in October 2017 on a trip to the Yukon and made a surprising discovery.
My great-grandmother was Tlingit. She married an immigrant.
“We started talking and, if you can believe it, we’re relatives,” Bourassa told her audience.
“My great-grandmother was Tlingit,” she said, referring to Johanna Salaba. “She married an immigrant. They moved from the far northern B.C. into Saskatchewan and they had a family.”
However, CBC has passenger manifests showing Bourassa’s great-grandmother Salaba left Russia in 1911 with her mother and sister to connect with her father, who had been granted land in Saskatchewan’s Punnichy area, where many Eastern European people settled.
Census records identify Salaba as a Czech-speaking Russian, unable to speak English.
CBC spoke with a 99-year-old relative of Johanna, Marie Salaba, whose husband, Phillip, was Johanna’s nephew. Marie says in the 1940s, she and Phillip used to visit with his aunts, including Johanna, also known as Jennie.
“I met them, but I never had any visits with them, because they talked Czech and I didn’t. But my husband did,” said Marie Salaba.
In about 1913, Johanna married Joseph Knezacek.
Census records show he was a Russian-born farmer who immigrated to Saskatchewan in 1890. Knezacek’s first wife, Sophia, died in 1912, leaving behind seven children.
Joseph and Johanna had 10 children together, according to the birth registry, census records, obituaries and published family history accounts.
Their second-youngest child was Ladislav “Laddie” Knezacek. According to a 1992 Regina Leader-Post obituary, Laddie is Bourassa’s grandfather.
“This grandfather that [Bourassa] was always talking about was not Indigenous,” Wheeler said.
Bourassa has relayed parts of her life story in print and in many talks across the country. Born in 1973, she says she was raised by her teenage parents and her Métis grandfather and faced “intergenerational trauma,” the consequences of racism and colonialism.
“Everybody around me was either an alcoholic, drug addict or suffered from some sort of addiction. There was a lot of violence in my family,” she said in a 2017 episode of the Women Warriors podcast. “There was a lot of sexual abuse. It was endemic.”
Bourassa said her family on her mother’s side was Métis, but that fact was kept quiet.
“Self-hatred, denial and preservation meant hiding our Métis status,” Bourassa wrote in her 2017 book, Listening to the Beat of our Drum.
She said her grandfather, a Regina car salesman, told her “it was a very tough time to be a half-breed family,’’ as he would endure racist slurs. Bourassa said she did, too, noting, “I had a tough time in school anyways with bullying and taunts — ‘squaw,’ ‘half-breed,’ you name it and I was called it.”
In a 2019 Twitter post, Bourassa wrote, “I was around 7 years old with my gramps and we were walking together. Someone shouted out ‘dirty breed’ to him… and that’s when I knew what racism was.”
Even so, she said her grandfather tried to pass down some Métis traditions. “He did take me out to an aunty’s to pick berries, and they tanned hides, made mukluks and moccasins, and beaded,” she said.
Bourassa says as a child, she was just focused on survival and didn’t have time to dream about a better life. But she said thanks to her grandfather’s inspiration, she has been able to break that cycle.
‘Not rooted in fact'
Bourassa’s parents, Ron and Diane Weibel, declined an interview with CBC. However, a statement provided to CBC by their other daughter, Jody Burnett, on behalf of the family, says Bourassa’s “description of our family is inaccurate, not rooted in fact and moreover is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not Carrie Bourassa is Métis.”
They said they have no further comment.
However, through publicly available information, CBC has been able to piece together some details of Bourassa’s early family life.
The Weibels own and operate Berry Hills Estates, a real estate development in the Qu’Appelle Valley, where they offer people the chance to build a dream home “on one of Saskatchewan’s most sought-after lakes.”
On their website, they provide their own account of their family’s early years.
“We lived in Regina most of our lives, married young, had two children, started businesses of our own, one of which we ran for over 30 years,” the website says.
Their longest-running business, Ron’s Car Cleaning, started in the mid-1970s, shortly after Bourassa was born.
“It was the No. 1 detail shop in the province for, like, forever,” said Jason Coates, a former employee of the Weibels, who said Diane Weibel was a brilliant, hard-working businesswoman.
“[The Weibels] were always doing really well,” said Coates. “That’s because she would work her ass off.”
In 1979, when Carrie was about six years old, the Weibels purchased a home in a middle-class neighbourhood in Regina’s north end, according to land title records.
On the weekends, Ron Weibel was active at the racetrack, as one of the most prominent and successful racing enthusiasts and organizers in Regina. A 1986 Regina Leader-Post article described Weibel’s 1982 Corvette as “the envy of most of the estimated 1,000 race patrons.”
In her 1998 master’s thesis at the University of Regina, Bourassa did not mention her grandfather but thanked her husband, Chad Bourassa, and his parents, as well as mom and dad “Ron and Diane Weibel, who not only insisted that I pursue my dream, but also sacrificed their financial stability so that I could do so.”
Wheeler says she’s offended by the way that Bourassa has described her childhood, “feeding into stereotypes” of poverty, violence and substance abuse.
“Maybe she did have a dysfunctional childhood and it was full of pain. But to bring that into a discussion about her identity and under this flimsy umbrella of her Indigeneity, I think, was really manipulative, because it suggests that she is Indigenous, that she experienced Indigenous poverty.”
Wheeler said Bourassa’s claims of Indigeneity are offensive.
“It’s theft. It is colonialism in its worst form and it’s a gross form of white privilege.”
Sister abandons Métis heritage claim
In an email to CBC, Burnett, Bourassa’s sister, wrote “growing up as a child, I didn’t identify as Métis.”
That changed in 2002, when Bourassa invited Burnett to a meeting with the president of a Métis local organization, Clifford Larocque. Burnett said at that meeting, “Cliff provided confirmation that our family had [Métis] lineage in B.C.” She said he assured Burnett that she did have Métis ancestry and “should be confident in representing myself as such.”
She said at that meeting “I was not shown any documentation — rather, it was shared with me verbally.” Laroque did provide Burnett, however, with a certificate of membership in a Métis local. According to the email from Bourassa, Larocque provided her with a membership in the Métis local in 2006.
Burnett began identifying publicly as Métis. In her 2012 PhD dissertation at the University of Regina on the problems of gambling in Indigenous communities, Burnett also described a difficult childhood.
“As a Métis woman growing up in a family that was constantly struggling with addiction, work in this area became very important to me,” Burnett wrote. “Both my grandmother and my aunt had problems with gambling. They lost their financial stability, weakened their family units.”
According to acknowledgments in her thesis, Burnett received funding for her education from a number of bodies that provided financial assistance to Indigenous people.
Burnett told CBC she hasn’t claimed to be Métis since 2014, when her “husband completed a family tree through a genealogical software program. From that point on, I did not feel certain of my heritage and as such, have stopped identifying as Métis.”
This angered Bourassa, according to a 2018 email Bourassa wrote to her colleague Caroline Tait. The email exchange began one October evening, when a colleague at an event told Tait that Burnett had renounced her Métis identity and that Bourassa was not truly Indigenous.
At the time, Bourassa was living in Tait’s house, as she had just arrived in Saskatoon to take up a new role at the U of S.
Tait decided to write a quick email to Bourassa to clear up what she assumed was a rumour. Bourassa confirmed the story about Burnett was true.
“My sister and my aunt decided to turn their backs on the Métis community because they are self-serving, selfish people and [have] no interest in serving their communities,” Bourassa wrote to Tait, who provided the email to CBC.
“All they were looking for was a way to make some money. My sister got thousands of dollars in Métis scholarships that put her through her Masters and PhD.” Burnett says when she applied for and received that funding she believed she was Métis and a legitimate recipient of it.
Bourassa also defended her own ancestry, writing, “I have twice done my genealogy and received Métis local memberships and I am accepted in the community.”
CBC asked Bourassa for a copy of those genealogies, but she hasn’t provided them.
Bourassa not on Métis citizenship registry
On her Facebook page, Bourassa says she’s a member of First Indigenous Riel Métis Local #33 (FIRM 33).
Wendy Gervais, the elected representative for the Métis Nation–Saskatchewan (MN-S) in the Regina region where FIRM 33 is located, says that organization is not connected to the Métis Nation.
“They are not a recognized, legal local,” said Gervais. “They’re not part of our governing body.”
Gervais said in Saskatchewan, proving you are a Métis person is relatively simple — you just show you are on the provincial citizenship registry.
“If someone were questioning who I am, here’s my citizenship card, here’s my genealogy. This is who I am,” said Gervais. “Any person carrying a Métis citizenship card has produced their documentation to prove who they are.”
In fact, during a 2012 address to a House of Commons committee examining Métis identity, Bourassa acknowledged she didn’t qualify for the registry.
“I can have my local membership, but I know I am not eligible for that provincial registry,” Bourassa said.
While Bourassa has declined an interview, CBC has learned that behind the scenes she has been preparing for a potential story for months.
In a July email sent from her CIHR account, Bourassa told a group of supporters she had become aware that CBC was investigating her.
“CBC has been relentlessly targeting Indigenous female leaders and I have been one of the biggest targets,” she wrote in the email, which was provided to CBC. “I will NOT be taking any interviews and the strategy is that we focus on CBC not me.”
It is now time to support and celebrate strong Indigenous female leaders as opposed to use them as targets of these kinds of attacks.
She noted in the email that staff at CIHR had assisted her in drafting a response statement “in the event that CBC does run a story.” She asked the recipients for feedback on the draft statement, which indicated it is “appalling” that the CBC was focusing on “Indigenous identity fraud.”
“It is now time to support and celebrate strong Indigenous female leaders as opposed to use them as targets of these kinds of attacks.”
CBC asked CIHR if it was appropriate for communications staff at a federal agency to assist Bourassa in writing a statement like this. In an email, a spokesperson replied, “CIHR strongly supports Dr. Carrie Bourassa in refuting any claims doubting her Indigenous identity.”
CBC has also been provided with a six-page draft entitled “Open letter in support of Dr. Carrie Bourassa,” dated Sept. 7, 2021.
The draft letter offers a series of quotes in support of Bourassa, although most didn’t include attribution. The letter concludes with the names of about 30 people, including five members of Bourassa’s CIHR IIPH board.
The letter says the signatories support Bourassa as a “strong and resilient Indigenous woman,” and it says those questioning that “should be ashamed and need to reflect on their own colonial thinking.”
The letter says Indigenous academics criticizing Bourassa are on “a witch hunt.”
“The Elder ‘believes it is repugnant that professional Indigenous people should stoop to attack each other in their line of work,” the letter says, without specifying who the elder is.
The letter indicates that when evaluating someone’s claim to Indigenous identity, community acceptance and self-identification are more important than genealogy.
The letter also says, “I see their gifts, how they contribute to our community and I see the pride they show in who they have become, which is what matters to me. Ancestry.com has nothing to do with it.”
One of the 30 names at the bottom of this letter is Christopher Mushquash, the vice-chair of Bourassa’s CIHR IIPH board. When asked by CBC if he endorsed the letter, Mushquash said he had seen a draft and “asked that my name not be included [in] an open letter.”
Another board member, Dawn Martin-Hill, was puzzled by her inclusion in the letter.
“I couldn’t understand why I never received a copy from Director [Scientific Director Carrie Bourassa] for approval,” she wrote in an email to CBC. “I asked Carrie, ‘Why would you release a letter with my name on it?’”
Can't stay silent
Wheeler said the fact that the letter advocates sidelining genealogical proof is alarming at a time when Indigenous people are fighting for their rights and their land.
“That’s opening the doors to every Tom, Dick and Harry to claim Indigeneity,” she said. “Then suddenly out of the woodwork, everybody’s Indigenous because they feel like it.”
According to an email from the University of Saskatchewan, if Indigenous identity or experience is required for a role, the university “accepts self-declaration in matters of employment.”
Wheeler said that’s not enough.
“When I apply for an academic job, I have to give them a copy of my certificate for my PhD,” she said. “But if I’m applying for a position that’s targeted only for Indigenous people, I’m not required to provide anything except self-identification. Now that’s lowering standards.”
Smylie said she decided to speak up, despite the risks to her career, because the consequences of continued silence are grave.
“If I was to stay quiet and let somebody who’s an impostor regularly inform the nation and lead the nation like in Indigenous health, then I guess then I wouldn’t [have] earned the right to call myself Métis anymore,” she said. “And that will be the end of our people.”
Editing and layout by Andre Mayer | Top image: Morgan Modjeski/CBC