Métis Nation leadership says the rise in people falsely claiming a Métis identity is dangerous because it threatens the future of the entire Nation.
David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation and vice-president and spokesperson for the Métis National Council, said his temperature started to rise reading about Breanne Lavallee-Heckert’s experience at the Senate.
Lavallee-Heckert, a citizen of the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), told CBC News she felt she had no choice but to resign from her job in the office of Sen. Marilou McPhedran over the handling of a complaint she raised — alleging a coworker was falsely claiming to be Métis in the workplace.
“What if somebody came and said they’re Canadian and they’re not?” said Chartrand.
“How would you act, senator? That’s how we feel. You cannot just come in here from anywhere in the world and say you’re Canadian unless you go through a process; the same thing with us.”
Chartrand said the MMF will be asking Lavallee-Heckert if she wants to take further action with respect to what happened and that he’ll also be personally following up with the Senate.
“We have a lot to lose here,” he said.
His argument is that if hundreds of thousands — or millions — of people start self-identifying as Métis without repercussions they will outnumber the Nation’s citizens, start re-writing the Nation’s history and could eventually “assimilate our very existence as a people.”
“In our process of our constitution, self-identifying is only one segment of it. You’ve got to prove your historical connection to the Métis Nation and its homeland,” he said.
‘We’re struggling to make sense of what to do’
There’s a lot to lose, said Chartrand, because of the scope of how many people have started to self-identify as Indigenous. It’s a trend that academics have described as ‘race-shifting’ or ‘self-Indigenization.’
Darryl Leroux, an associate professor of social justice and community studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and author of Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, said the situation that unfolded at the Senate is common.
He said ‘race-shifting’ has become “quite widespread” in the public service, in academia and elsewhere.
“As a society generally we’re struggling to make sense of what to do when white people are claiming to be Indigenous because that’s not what we have come to think of as a possibility over time,” he said.
Leroux said that historically it hasn’t been beneficial to people to identify as Indigenous but he said this started to change with the legal recognition of Aboriginal rights. He said most often the ‘race-shifting’ groups claim a Métis identity, but some claim to be First Nations.
Leroux said the phenomenon is problematic at a systemic level, in terms of eroding Indigenous sovereignty. He said institutions need to be equipped to respond if they’re serious about supporting Indigenous people.
“If you work at an institution and you are bringing in initiatives related to Indigenous people, you are inevitably going to have to tackle this,” he said.
“We’re literally talking about hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are taking up Indigenous space.”
Grassroots movement of verifying claims
Where institutions haven’t been tackling this question, it’s left a gap where grassroots people have organized around investigating people’s claims.
Robyn Lawson, a Nehiyaw-Métis activist in B.C., said she got involved in the movement a few years ago in response to the “enormous issue of thousands of false claims of Indigeneity across Canada” and how that translates to lost opportunities for Indigenous people.
Over the years she she’s been involved in looking into hundreds of people claiming an Indigenous identity. She said for most of them research reveals no legitimate claim to being Indigenous.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get past all of this,” she said.
In the recent situation at the Senate, Lawson said she too had looked into the Senate staffer Lavallee-Heckert raised concerns about. Like Lavallee-Heckert, she too determined the person’s claims to Indigeneity were problematic based on the Eastern organization of which they were a member and she wrote to Sen. McPhedran with the information she’d come across.
In her email correspondence with the senator, shared with CBC, Lawson said it seemed the senator was missing her point. Instead of directly addressing the issues, she asked Lawson if she were insinuating that only Indigenous people should work on certain issues in the Senate.
“I thought her response was steeped in an arrogance that was infuriating,” said Lawson.
Lawson said the situation at the Senate emphasizes, to her, the importance of Indigenous Nations being respected in defining who is and isn’t part of their Nation.