This Opinion piece is by Chris Andersen, who is Métis from the Parkland region of Saskatchewan and is currently dean of the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.
The revelations about Carrie Bourassa’s claims to Indigeneity were, in retrospect, not especially surprising to those of us who research Indigenous identity.
Her story followed a fairly predictable arc. It started with hazy, increasingly confusing and contradictory claims to Indigeneity, moved on to accusations of bullying and lateral violence, then to defenders and detractors arguing with each other on her behalf, followed by attempts to shore up earlier claims and, eventually, silence.
As I was chatting with colleagues, it occurred to me that — the specifics of this case notwithstanding — there are more important questions to ask.
What is it about university structures that allows these dynamics to continue?
It feels like Groundhog Day
More often than not, fraudulent Indigenous identity claims in academia have two key characteristics.
First, they are based primarily on self-identification that sits somewhere on a spectrum from complete dishonesty, to distant archival ancestors, to the family lore of a dark-skinned or high cheek-boned great/grandparent. Second, they involve no ongoing extended familial connection to an Indigenous community.
Many Indigenous academics find this fraud both irritating and emotionally draining. It’s especially vexing how it seems these false claims are being unearthed at an increasing clip in recent years, and little ever seems to change. It feels like Groundhog Day.
We repeatedly offer advice to university administrators. When — or if — they respond, they cite a lack of explicit policy for dealing with such dynamics. Alternatively, they reply with platitudes about how identity is “complex” and “personal.”
Either way, instead of drawing clear boundaries or committing to establishing structures to prevent further fraud, they vacillate between sitting on their hands and wringing them.
This leads many overburdened Indigenous scholars to wonder why we waste our time giving advice — not to mention putting ourselves on the firing line for accusations of bullying or lateral violence — only to have it be dismissed.
Most universities rely on self-identification as the key marker of Indigenous identity claims.
In some respects, this makes perfect sense. It accords with understandings of Indigeneity that anchor the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and stands in stark contrast to colonial legislation such as the Indian Act, which denies the validity of self-identification.
We cannot rely on shame or embarrassment to prevent ‘late-onset Indigenous identity claims,’ since anyone with dignity or integrity wouldn’t have made the claims to begin with.– Chris Andersen
Though administrators in many universities have responded to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action with sincere commitments to making their institutions more welcoming to Indigenous people, these commitments are limited.
Most of these universities have virtually no policies, outside of student awards or special “seats” for legal or medical students, for vetting Indigenous claims beyond self-identification.
An ethical approach
What is a senior university administrator committed to the ethics of the TRC to do about Indigeneity claims in a context where self-identification reigns supreme?
One possible ethical approach would consist of at least three key elements.
First, any candidate hired into an Indigenous academic position should be able and willing to describe their Indigenous community connections in the employment interview process. Ideally, these would consist of more than claims to ancestry. We are often called upon by government, media and other institutions to inform policies, programs and resource allocations affecting Indigenous communities and individuals. The people doing that work should have lived Indigenous experience.
Second, non-Indigenous administrators should prioritize hiring community-connected Indigenous scholars into upper administrative positions, and provide the resources and authoritative space necessary to create Indigenous-led committees to vet matters of Indigenous identity.
Finally, university presidents’ and provosts’ offices should strive to partner strategically with local Indigenous communities, both on this issue and more broadly. On top of being “TRC-compliant,” this would pay dividends for all kinds of practical reasons.
This approach would not necessarily prevent all fraudulent claims. These dynamics are messy, emotionally fraught and can occur long after the hiring itself.
Nonetheless, if universities are truly committed to responding ethically to the TRC, university administrators must be willing to sit with the discomfort that previous policies have wrought. They must chart new paths forward. They must create clear and transparent policies in partnership with Indigenous faculty, staff and students on one hand, and with Indigenous communities and organizations on the other.
We cannot rely on shame or embarrassment to prevent “late-onset Indigenous identity claims,” since anyone with dignity or integrity wouldn’t have made the claims to begin with.
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