New University of Sask. commissioned report tackles ‘poison’ of Indigenous identity fraud

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U of S was at centre of Indigenous identity controversy last year.

One year after the University of Saskatchewan found itself in the midst of a national scandal around the issue of Indigenous identity, it has released a detailed independent report it commissioned outlining the extent of the problem and how to fix it.

In October 2021, CBC published a report raising doubts about U of S professor Carrie Bourassa’s claims to Indigenous ancestry. She was suspended from her role at the university and resigned earlier this year.

In the wake of that story, the university asked Jean Teillet, a high-profile Métis lawyer, to investigate.

Initially her work focused on Bourassa, but after Bourassa resigned, Teillet turned her attention to the broader problem.

“It’s poison. It seeps out everywhere and then everybody is tainted by it and everybody’s damaged,” said Teillet in an interview with CBC.

Teillet noted that across Canada, universities have focused on creating positions set aside for Indigenous people. She said the intention was good, but they naively relied on self-identification, which is essentially just an applicant ticking a box.

“The academy seriously underestimated the fact that so many individuals would seek to exploit that ignorance for their personal gain,” wrote Teillet in her 84-page report. “As a consequence there were few checks and balances to detect or deter Indigenous identity fraud.”

A pervasive fraud

Over the past few years, there has been a growing number of high-profile people revealed to have been baselessly claiming Indigenous ancestry.

Kim Tallbear, an Indigenous scholar from the University of Alberta who has studied this problem, said she believes it’s endemic.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if 25 per cent of the people identifying as Indigenous for hiring in Canada are not,” she said.

Tallbear said her conclusion is not based on specific research, which would be very difficult to do. She said it’s based on her own observations and conversations as she has travelled the country in a wide variety of academic circles.

“You get the impression based on your own social networks,” she said.

Last month, a CBC investigation raised questions about former judge and prominent academic Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who has for decades claimed to be a treaty Indian of Cree ancestry. CBC’s report found that claim was not supported by publicly available evidence.

Earlier this week a group of Indigenous women called on 11 universities across the country to revoke honorary doctorates they had granted to Turpel-Lafond.

Peter Stoicheff, the president of the University of Saskatchewan, said he hopes the new report can provide assistance to universities and other institutions considering the many complex issues involved.

“Universities are institutions of learning and there’s a lot to learn from this report,” he said. He noted the report came out of a challenging time for his institution and that if it benefits others, “that’s a silver lining.”

Earlier this year, the U of S adopted a new policy, developed by an Indigenous-led committee, that requires anyone applying for jobs or scholarships targeted for Indigenous people to provide documentation supported by Indigenous governments — a status card a Métis citizenship card or other approved documentation.

“Self-identification is no longer sufficient,” said Airini, the university’s provost, who goes by just one name. She said the policy “will ensure that those who hold Indigenous-specific positions have verification of being members of Indigenous communities.”

She said the university has a lot to learn from the new report and that the Indigenous-led committee will be reviewing it.

Understanding identity fraud

Teillet said there are likely tens of thousands of people pretending to be Indigenous in a wide range of professions in Canada.

“In the academy, they are mostly women. In the hunting and fishing rights realm, they are mostly men,” she said. 

Teillet’s report focuses on academia more generally.

Teillet said there are two main types of identity fraudsters.

The first are the fabricators, who “fabricate an Indigenous identity out of thin air.”

The second are the embellishers. They exaggerate their connection to Indigeneity. Sometimes they claim to be Indigenous “based on illusive hearsay or rumours,” or tiny fragments of evidence like “an ancestor from the 1600s, or a DNA test that reveals a small percentage of Native American ancestry.”

She said some fakers are motivated by money or opportunity. Others have more nuanced motives.

Some, she said, may be driven by a disgust for how the colonial state has harmed Indigenous people, so “they often want to disassociate themselves from their whiteness. They do this by opting to ‘become Indian.'”

Others may have initially believed they were truly Indigenous based on family lore.

“They build a web of stories on this base and when their deception is uncovered, they are already trapped in a false narrative that became increasingly difficult to deny without consequences they are unwilling to pay,” the report says, quoting scholar Stephen Kimber.

Detecting fraud

Teillet said fraudsters can be difficult to detect because there is so much complexity and nuance that surrounds Indigenous ancestry and history. In addition, she said, the general Canadian population and even university administrators are ignorant about the topic.

“Indigenous identity fraudsters take advantage of this complexity,” she wrote.

She said people who are pretending to be Indigenous feed off the ignorance of the non-Indigenous population.

“The fraudsters enact stereotypes they know will be recognized by the non-Indigenous audience,” she said. “There is often silent and resentful recognition by Indigenous people that the performance is a stereotyped image of themselves.”

Teillet’s report offers a series of recommendations mostly focused on transparency.

She says universities should require applicants for jobs or scholarships aimed at Indigenous people to prove their ancestry with documentation or oral evidence.

“There’s a fear out there that you can’t ask Indigenous people about their identity in a job application,” said Teillet. “That’s all wrong. If you’re giving them the job because they’re Indigenous, then you get to ask for proof that they’re Indigenous.”

She said the solution is education, which will help people in decision-making positions recognize the red flags and dig deeper.

She said it’s up to universities to study this phenomenon and do something to curb it.

“As an institution dedicated to learning and education, the academy is well situated to educate itself about Indigenous identity, tackle Indigenous identity fraud and take a leadership role nationally,” said Teillet.

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