This column is an opinion by Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representational organization for Inuit in Canada. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Growing up in the 1980s, I couldn’t imagine that anyone would pretend to be an Inuk for personal gain. At that time, my father and other Inuit, as a part of our Nunatsiavut Inuit collective, were working to safeguard our homeland, spending time away from their families to negotiate what ultimately became the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement.
Outside of our five Inuit communities in Labrador, being an Inuk often meant you were a target for racism, disrespect, and ridicule.
Today, by contrast, we see a growing list of people falsely claiming to be Indigenous to take advantage of a range of benefits and opportunities, both personal and professional.
Perhaps it is just that the media and others have rightly begun investigating and challenging pretenders with greater vigor and frequency, but their misrepresentation gives pretenders an advantage over both non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples.
We have seen this most often in fields where Indigenous peoples are underrepresented, such as academia, government, entertainment, and the legal profession.
A significant threat
Taken together, pretenders constitute one of the most significant colonial threats to Indigenous collectives in the 21st century. They form part of a societal assault that threatens to diminish hard-won Indigenous rights and recognition by creating an environment where Indigenous identity, rights and recognition are up for grabs and no longer mean anything. This ultimately threatens to displace Indigenous peoples at the individual, community, and collective levels.
This has already begun happening in recent years as groups of organized, non-Indigenous people have sought to lay claim to an Inuit heritage located in the distant past, and demand recognition, rights, and resources from governments.
These cases are disturbing and deeply unethical, betraying a lack of honesty, morality, and integrity.
Most of all, lying about being an Indigenous person is profoundly disrespectful to actual Indigenous peoples and communities, whose experiences and cultures are co-opted and exploited by pretenders, usually so that a non-Indigenous person can gain personal notoriety, career advancement, and financial opportunities.
Whatever good deeds such individuals may carry out in their roles does not negate the fact that only a person of profoundly poor character would choose to perpetuate such falsehoods.
Universities, governments and other employers can support reconciliation with Indigenous peoples by directly addressing situations where individuals have been exposed for lying about their identities to receive rewards intended for Indigenous peoples. To do otherwise is to perpetrate the same forms of colonization which have served to exclude Indigenous peoples and our lived experiences.
It encourages further bad behaviour, sending the message to others that lying about your identity and background in order to gain a leg up is acceptable, and that non-Indigenous persons have free reign to exploit us for personal benefit without facing any consequences.
The dishonesty is not only shocking, it is a completely unnecessary betrayal by those whose intent may otherwise be to do good work. Inuit, like other Indigenous peoples, work side by side with non-Inuit experts and allies, sometimes over decades, to advance Inuit self-determination.
The recently released federal Inuit Nunangat Policy defines Inuit as members of the four Inuit treaty organizations that collectively represent all Inuit in Canada. We pushed for the inclusion of this definition to ensure that funding and policies which are allocated for the benefit of Inuit are actually used to benefit our people, instead of collectives or individuals who simply self-identify as Inuit.
Implementation of the Inuit Nunangat Policy will require the federal government to use Inuit membership in Inuit treaty organizations as the criteria for determining eligibility for certain employment opportunities, programs and initiatives that are intended to benefit Inuit.
It is time for the rest of Canada to follow suit: self-identification must end. Universities, governments, granting agencies and other institutions seeking to recognize Indigenous peoples for jobs or funding opportunities where Indigeneity would be considered an asset need to adopt policies that require proof of Indigenous status.
Without such policies, Indigenous peoples will continue to be exploited by imposters who claim opportunities intended for our people.
Do you have a strong opinion that could add insight, illuminate an issue in the news, or change how people think about an issue? We want to hear from you. Here’s how to pitch to us.