Indigenous identity fraud is still common within Universities

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The chief of a First Nation frustrated by the rising tide of Indigenous identity fraud. He said powerful institutions should publicly apologize in writing to nations they’ve insulted by empowering fakes.

“That’s the question at hand here: They have to apologize. If they can’t, then they’re going to just keep doing what they’re doing,” said Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. “How are they going to fix the problem internally if they can’t admit what they did wrong?”

Within the last year several universities, organizations and the federal public service have all launched “consultations” to strengthen their internal policies on vetting Indigenous hires following a succession of controversies that prompted scrutiny and demands for change.

Kitigan Zibi is an Algonquin First Nation established in 1853 about 130 km north of Ottawa near Maniwaki, Que. It was a flourishing time for the region, Whiteduck said, in which construction of rail and canal infrastructure brought a timber boom and an influx of settlers with it.

“There’s been a lot of people that stayed near parts of our area for fishing and hunting,” he said. “That’s where they get that self-sense that they’re part of this area and they must be Algonquin.”

Subsequently, the community has had several questionable Algonquin identity claims and efforts to assert an eastern Métis presence in the region, which the Métis National Council does not recognize.

The phenomenon is sometimes called race-shifting. The term explains recent explosion of people self-identifying as Indigenous, often Métis, on the basis of a distant ancestor or nebulous connection to community—and sometimes no connection at all.

In December a CBC investigation questioned the identity of award-winning filmmaker Michelle Latimer, who said she was from Kitigan Zibi in a National Film Board press release, which sparked controversy.

Latimer is not a member of Kitigan Zibi. She publicly apologized for claiming community ties before properly verifying them, but she maintained in a defamation lawsuit that she “is and identifies as Algonquin Métis” and never falsified her claims.

The scandal essentially shocked the arts world and caused a rippling effect, prompting public debate about Indigenous identity.

Latimer discontinued the case without further litigation ,but the statement of claim raised questions about individuals’ right to self-identify as Indigenous.

Currently, self-identification is the standard used by many universities and across the entire federal public service. They’ve come to accept the “honour system” isn’t working as well as it should, but weren’t able to offer a concrete alternative when contacted by APTN.

University seek solutions

Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., found itself wrapped up in internal conflict about the same issue while the Latimer saga unfolded.

In June, an anonymous document surfaced online alleging that various members of the university’s professorial staff were fraudsters. The university denounced the report, which it said “is misleading and contains factual accuracies.”

However, several Indigenous academics immediately pushed back with an open letter urging the university to retract the statement and take a good, hard look at its own policies.

“Scrutiny of spurious and suspicious claims to citizenship is a legitimate exercise,” the letter said. “This is particularly true for decolonizing First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities that are striving to throw off colonial oppression imposed by external and foreign actors.”

The following day, Queen’s said it takes the issue seriously and agrees with many of the letter’s arguments.

Within a few weeks Queen’s released another statement, this time from chancellor designate Murray Sinclair who was poised to assume the post on July 1.

“It is clear that self-identification of Indigeneity no longer works. Self-declaration is an important part, but it is just the beginning,” said Sinclair. “We must go beyond an honour system and include voices from Indigenous communities across Turtle Island.”

In November the university announced it was starting consultations with hopes to improve its internal policies, procedures and practices.

University of Saskatchewan also had similar events. Their faculty members publicly accused their colleague Carrie Bourassa, a top Indigenous health researcher, of falsifying her Anishinaabe, Métis and Tlingit identity.

National news reported that “Bourassa maintained that she became Métis through adoption, but the university was soon embroiled in a dispute that followed a similar track to the one at Queen’s. The university initially stood by the researcher but then announced she’d been suspended and stripped of her duties. An independent probe is now underway.”

University of Saskatchewan provost Airini, who goes by one name, told APTN the university is taking “extremely seriously” its consultations with Indigenous communities on the issue.

She finally came to terms with how self-identification can no longer be the standard but offered few details about how the institution will enact a system to verify claims.

Airini said “always what we do is look to communities for that assessment. We know as a university that it’s not for us to be the adjudicator,” and “It’s up to us as a university to make sure any and every appointment made can be trusted and that our communities can see it as legitimate appointment.”

Carleton University in Ottawa offered a nearly identical statement on what it’s doing.

“We are currently engaging Indigenous communities and legal experts on developing a process to protect opportunities intended for Indigenous people,” said a spokesperson. “We understand this process must be community-driven and acknowledge the sovereignty of Indigenous communities.”

Self-identification is also the standard used across the entire federal public service for vetting the Indigenous identity of prospective bureaucrats. It’s a simple, one-page form.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) told APTN in May it was “currently reviewing” the policy after Indigenous staff complained that it facilitated ethnic fraud.

“The PSC decided to provide additional time for consultations with stakeholders. As such, this project is still ongoing and we are currently reviewing the information,” said the commission in a follow up statement. “In the new year, we will complete the analysis and develop recommendations.”

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