Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Indigenous academic leaders are frustrated about how long it took universities to respond to charges of Indigenous identity fraud with well-known scholars Carrie Bourassa, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and others.
“There’s that need again to have dialogue about the impact of Indigenous identification fraud,” said Dr. Jacqueline Ottmann. She is co-chair of the National Indigenous University Senior Leaders’ Association (NIUSLA), president of the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC) and is Saulteaux.
NIUSLA was created late in 2021, in part, to ensure scholars don’t fraudulently claim Indigenous identity. It has 47 members from universities across the country. Membership does not include community colleges. NIUSLA and FNUC hosted the second annual National Indigenous Citizenship Forum in Regina last week.
In October 2021, Bourassa’s self-identification as Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit came under fire when her claim of Indigenous ancestry could not be substantiated. Bourassa was a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan and was scientific director of the Indigenous health branch of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
In November 2021, CIHR dismissed Bourassa from her position and the university suspended her while her claims of Indigeneity were being investigated. However, it wasn’t until June 2022 that the university announced, without specifics, that Bourassa had resigned.
Turpel-Lafond’s claim to Cree heritage came under public scrutiny in October 2022. From 2018 until mid-2022 (prior to her Indigeneity being questioned) she served as the director at the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. She was a tenured law professor at UBC until December 2022. However, it took until February 2023 for a number of universities to rescind honorary degrees they had awarded her and there are yet more universities still to make that decision.
“What we’re also learning, and the stories that we’ve heard, is that Indigenous peoples within post-secondary institutions, in some cases, know who these people are…They may have talked about that amongst each other, but really didn’t feel supported enough to bring it to administration,” said Ottmann.
Pretendians, a term coined to mean people who are claiming false indigeneity, are not new to the academic world. But says Ottmann, recently the numbers of people falsely claiming Indigeneity has ratcheted up. Some say it’s because grant dollars in such areas as research and arts are more readily available for Indigenous scholars, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the legacy of Indian residential schools has pushed for designated seats in universities for Indigenous peoples.
However, says Ottman, a panel of psychologists at the conference said people don’t always claim to be Indigenous for material gain.
“Theories as to why some non-Indigenous peoples have taken on these false identities and have dug in or continue to dig in… is (that they are) striving for that sense of collective identity, that sense of belonging,” said Ottman.
“Many of our philosophies focus on relatedness, interconnectivity and also sustainability. We have amazing philosophies. They’re not focused on individualism and isolation, but community.”
Other individuals, theorizes the psychology panel, hold on to their false claims because they have come to believe in their own deception.
Conference goers estimate pretendians employed in universities is as high as 25 per cent, a startling figure when considering Indigenous faculty only accounts for 1.4 per cent of the university population.
It is clear, she points out, that checking the box to self-identify as Indigenous is not working and universities don’t have policies yet to address identity fraud.
In the year that NIUSLA has been in operation, Ottmann says some universities have started working with their local Indigenous communities to develop policies and processes.
In fact, says Ottmann, connection to community is one way to prove Indigeneity.
She points out that when Indigenous people meet, their greetings involve establishing relationships, which often include questions about who their people are and where they come from.
“If people are being hired because of their Indigeneity and because of their Indigenous knowledge, it’s okay to ask more specifically about that knowledge and also the relationship that they have to community,” said Ottmann.
She points out that some universities are requesting letters of support or references, Métis cards or Status Indian cards.
Ottmann would like to see NIUSLA work towards establishing a set of principles or a charter that can be shared with Canada, which would allow organizations, such as universities, to create policies that can minimize Indigenous identity fraud.
It is important, though, she stresses, that universities temper a national approach with input from local Indigenous communities.
As for pretendians who are already in the system, Ottman says that is something individual universities will have to “grapple with.”
“It’s really complex,” said Ottmann, who is quick to point out that the problem has been created by non-Indigenous people, whether through the Indian Act, Sixties Scoop, or the foster care system.
“All of these really worked to define who an Indigenous person is. This is non-Indigenous legislation without Indigenous engagement. This is new territory because there is this resurgence of Indigenous people taking control of the narrative and speaking loudly to institutions,” she said.
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.