Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Universities need to put a system in place that stops non-Indigenous people from claiming Indigeneity and taking the positions and funding that belong to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.
“The harm of people usurping resources from Indigenous people, that’s a form of colonialism,” said Raven Sinclair, who spoke at a peaceful demonstration at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon on Friday.
The rally was coordinated by the grassroots Indigenous women’s organization Matriarchs, Clan Mothers, Aunties, and Allies to bring attention to the issue of Indigenous identity fraud, something they say is “running rampant in universities, all levels of government, institutions, the arts and in the private sector.”
Sinclair, a professor in the Faculty of Social Work for the University of Regina, admits there are no numbers to quantify that statement “because they’re just being exposed now.”
The latest to be “exposed” is Dr. Carrie Bourassa, now on leave as a USask professor and scientific director of the Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health of the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) after extensive research by CBC brought Bourassa’s claims to Indigeneity into question.
Sinclair says the Matriarchs and students, staff and faculty—she estimated about one-third of the 120 people at the rally were university-connected—could no longer be silent.
“I think what brought it to the fore is that Carrie, in particular, has been catapulted to the top of the Indigenous health research realm in the country. The next step for her would be like the scientific director of the whole Canadian Institute of Health Research. I think, for a lot of people, it was just too much. They were done,” said Sinclair.
Not sitting well, either, were the “noncommittal” statements released by both USask and CIHR, which initially stood by Bourassa, said Sinclair.
“Which is a little bit problematic because I think they had all the information to begin with. I think what happened is they experienced a lot of emails and letters and so on, calls from people nationally and perhaps even internationally in terms of their concerns about their responses,” she said.
Sinclair said she stopped engaging in any academic or scholarly matters with Bourassa when she started suspecting Bourassa’s claims. She’s known Bourassa for 20 years. She says in that time Bourassa went from a Cree-Métis claim to an Anishinaabe-Métis claim to eventually adding Tlingit.
Sinclair is concerned about those who will, or those who may have, experienced harm due to Bourassa’s academic and research influence. Sinclair said she is not one of those, but she points to the people who may have been passed up for career advancement, professional awards and financial benefits because of the positions held by Bourassa.
The Matriarchs are calling for reparations from universities “where any employee, found to have fraudulently claimed to be Indigenous, has caused emotional, psychological, or economic harm to students, employees, colleagues, and Indigenous communities.”
“It would be a situation where people have come forward with a complaint,” said Sinclair. “In any place where (Bourassa) represented herself as Indigenous and it had an impact on individuals, (USask) would have a process in place in which they could pursue remedies of some sort.”
Legal action against the universities could also be one recourse by those wronged, says Sinclair.
On the same day of the rally, URegina released a statement committing to establish an Indigenous advisory body that would work with university leadership to create a “respectful, transparent, and professional system of reviewing Indigenous employment credentials that honour Indigenous identity, experiences, and kinship.”
“I encouraged my institution through our VP of Indigenous engagement Lori Campbell to be proactive,” said Sinclair.
She adds that she had received word a month earlier from Campbell that URegina was planning to set up an Indigenous advisory group to look at the issue of identity, as well as the relevant Calls to Action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its 2015 final report on Indian residential schools.
Sinclair said that similar work for verification of Indigeneity will also have to be undertaken when it comes to awarding Indigenous scholarships.
Sinclair notes that the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has a “description” of who is Indigenous.
The UN has not officially adopted a definition of “Indigenous” because of the diversity in Indigenous people, but has instead “developed a modern understanding” of the term based on a number of factors, including self-identification; historical continuity; distinct social, economic, or political systems; and distinct language, culture and beliefs.
There will need to be patience “until Indigenous academics come out with some sort of a framework. Those discussions aren't only national, but they are already international,” said Sinclair.
“In the interim, institutions need to be putting together advisory bodies, which would be Indigenous scholars, community members, (and) Elders.”
The Matriarchs also called for the universities to “stop silencing, isolating, and retaliating against identity fraud whistleblowers” and to openly investigate their own conduct in these matters.
Also on the same day of the rally, Team C Bourassa, a group referring to themselves as an “Indigenous collective,” released a statement in support of Bourassa’s claim to Indigeneity, questioning USask or any non-Indigenous institutions’ right to determine Indigeneity.
They called Bourassa a “catalyst for determining Indigeneity in Indigenous communities, grassroots and globally.”
The group members claimed anonymity for fear of lateral violence and to minimize backlash.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.