Who is Indigenous?
Opinion

Who is Indigenous?

An anonymous document purporting to expose fake Indigenous people at Queen's University raises more questions than it answers. And it may only be the beginning.

Above: the Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, as seen on Google Street View.

Earlier this month, someone sent us the link to a document that was making the rounds on Twitter. At first glance, the report titled “Investigation into false claims to Indigenous identity at Queen’s University” looked like it might be an academic paper.

But it wasn’t “from” anyone at all. It was authored anonymously.

The document took aim at six people associated with the school, claiming they’ve been misrepresenting themselves and are not genuinely Indigenous, and that its findings “confirm that Queen’s University is currently overrun with white Canadians making false claims to Indigenous — especially Algonquin — identity.”

I’m not as certain about its conclusions as the anonymous author(s), and haven’t independently verified its claims.

The discussion about who is and who isn’t Indigenous is a difficult and nuanced one. As a Métis person, I think it’s one that needs to happen. But as a journalist, I think transparency matters — so isn’t it an issue that we don’t know who wrote the report?

On this week’s episode of CANADALAND, I dig into the document’s origins and implications, as well as the fallout from its release:

Truth be told, my first reaction had been to ignore it: some anonymous person or persons called out a bunch of people on the Internet — so what?

But Queen’s didn’t ignore it, quickly coming out with a statement: “We reject the anonymous document in question, which is misleading and contains factual inaccuracies including some genealogical information of individuals named in the document.” They said they’d be “investigating the origins and nature of the document” and taking appropriate action to “support those whose professional reputations are being maligned.”

Queen’s didn’t have to recognize the existence of a random document linked to on Twitter, much less pass judgment on the quality of its research. But once it did, questions followed: If the report contains “factual inaccuracies,” then does it also contain accuracies? Are parts of it true? Was the school at all interested in determining that or simply in protecting the reputations of its staff?

In response to Queen’s statement, dozens of Indigenous scholars put their names to their own “Statement on Identity and Institutional Accountability,” which called on the school to take the concerns seriously.

“It is unacceptable for universities to simply use an honour system when it comes to verifying the legitimacy of claims made by any faculty, staff, or student claiming to be Indigenous,” it said. “Citizenship in Indigenous nations is a matter of sovereignty and self-determination. Scrutiny of spurious and suspicious claims to citizenship is a legitimate exercise — this is particularly true for decolonizing First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities that are striving to throw off colonial oppression imposed by external and foreign actors.”

When mainstream media picked up the story, it seemed like Queen’s had a full-blown crisis on its hands, and soon put out a followup statement attributed to two senior administrators.

“As Indigenous members of the Queen’s community,” wrote Rahswahérha Mark F. Green and Kanonhsyonne Janice C. Hill, “we understand this is a very complex issue and this recent discourse has been both difficult and upsetting. However, we are concerned with recent allegations raised against some of our Indigenous academics and community members through an anonymous report. ”

Without elaborating on specifics, they noted that they looked into the report’s claims and found them to be baseless. “We did not simply reject the document, but rather, being privy to authentic personal records, were able to assess and determine that the report had cited erroneous records and ignored important facts.”

Perhaps if I could find out who wrote the thing in the first place, I could get closer to figuring out what was going on.

There was a possible clue in the first published version of the document, dated June 7th, whose metadata included the name Darryl Leroux. (In a revised version, dated June 10th, the words “Anonymous Collective” appear where his name had been.) That doesn’t mean that he wrote it, necessarily — just that it probably passed through his hands at some point before it was made public.

An associate professor in the Department of Social Justice and Community Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Leroux is the author of the 2019 book Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity.

He declined an interview and didn’t answer a question about his involvement in the report, but referred me to a couple of other people, saying, “I think it’s important that Algonquin people have their voices heard on all of this.”

One of them was Kyle St-Amour-Brennan, a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation and a non-academic signatory to the statement responding to Queen’s.

Asked why he believes the authors of the report chose to remain anonymous, he says, “I don’t think anybody ever wants to call anyone out on their identity or question it in any sort of sense. It’s never great.”

But he also thinks it has to do with filmmaker Michelle Latimer’s recent decision to take several CBC journalists to court over their reporting on questions around her own Indigenous identity, which he says has created “an environment where people are afraid of” such things happening.

Another signatory suggests an additional context in which the anonymous document could be read. Veldon Coburn is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa in the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies. He is also Algonquin.

“You don’t have to look at the author to understand how seriously it should be taken,” he says. “I think Indigenous scholars and the Algonquin Nation take it very seriously, irrespective of whose name may be on it — it’s the contents that matter.”

In his view, the report should be seen in light of ongoing negotiations between the Province of Ontario and an umbrella group called the Algonquins of Ontario, which would produce the province’s first modern-day constitutionally protected treaty, covering a territory of 36,000 square kilometres. Among the communities represented by the Algonquins of Ontario is a non-status nation called Snimikobi, which splintered from another non-status group, the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation (AAFN), in the mid-2000s. Three of the individuals cited by the anonymous report are connected to the AAFN.

Among them is Robert Lovelace, who teaches at Queen’s and has played a significant role in shaping its Indigenous curriculum. He helped found the AAFN (originally called “Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and Allies”) and is a former chief.

Reached at his home, he declined a full interview but says of the report that it’s “extremely inaccurate, poorly researched. It was an attack. It wasn’t a study of any sort” and that the authors could become subject to a libel suit.

“I don’t have to defend myself. I know who I am,” he says. “The university has vetted my credentials over the years. I’ve been there over 25 years.”

(In the past, he’s explained that he was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a white father and a mother who was Cherokee via her own father, and came to Canada in the late 60s to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. A longtime activist, his 2007 protests against a uranium mine landed him in jail, where he first read the Quran, and later converted to Islam.)

AAFN released a statement on June 21 saying, “It is with great dismay that Ardoch Algonquin First Nation has learned of both the anonymous ‘report’ maligning the Indigeneity of some of our community members, as well as the open letter from certain Indigenous academics supporting this report. As a community, we are deeply grateful to Queen’s University, our allies, friends, and relations who have supported us throughout this incredibly difficult period of anonymous attacks and social media discourse.”

“With respect to membership,” it explains, “Ardoch has historically rejected the restrictive and discriminatory criteria associated with Indian Act policy that stripped Indigenous women of their status and forced them from their homes, families, and communities.”

At the centre of all of this is perhaps the most difficult question: Who is an Indian?

According to the Indian Act, it’s simply “a person who pursuant to this Act is registered as an Indian or is entitled to be registered as an Indian.” Since the late 1880s, the Canadian government has regulated and conferred status to Indigenous peoples under that law, enforcing a Eurocentric view and categorizing people as Indians for the purpose of control.

The Act created racial segregation in Canada, along with the reserve system, residential schools, and Indian hospitals. The regime it created was studied by officials from Apartheid South Africa.

So that’s not who I want determining whether or not I’m Indigenous.

I first wrote about this after the identity of author Joseph Boyden came under scrutiny. I have sympathy for Indigenous people who feel like they don’t belong or know their history. For an Indigenous person raised or living in an urban environment, or for an Indigenous person who was scooped from their family, it can be a challenge to claim your identity.

In Canada, you need to decolonize your own story in the context of a diaspora.

By way of example, I’m Métis and my family comes from Red River. Far from clinging to Indigenous identity, my family has walked through the world with the privilege afforded to those who could “pass” as white.

At the same time, my grandmother passed on the tradition of jigging to my sister. She lived in St. Boniface, Manitoba, and grew up around Métis culture in a way that her children and grandchildren haven’t since moving to Alberta.

Still, to be Métis, to prove that beyond family lore you belong to a group of people, you have to be able to answer the question of who you are. It is the first question that you’re going to be asked when you meet another person from Red River. It is like a game to find out if you’re related.

When I spoke to University of Alberta professor Kim Tallbear about Boyden in 2016, she told me, “I don’t feel like most people who play Indian are being deliberately disingenuous.” She explained that many families claim a First Nations ancestor and that in the U.S. it was very common for people to come up to tell her about the blood ties they had.

This isn’t about upholding ideas of racial purity — also called “blood quantum” — it’s about letting communities define themselves.

In order for that to happen, there has to be an open conversation. But what’s taking place at Queens so far hasn’t been that.

There’s an anonymous report, a professor who won’t discuss any of this and raises the possibility of legal action, and a university administration flatly rejecting the claims being made, because they are satisfied that the people in question are legitimately Indigenous, end of story.

But it’s not the end of the story. Probably not at Queen’s, and certainly not everywhere else. We’re going to see this again and again.

In institution after institution across Canada, there are faculty members who have been taken as Indigenous based solely on self-identification, and administrators unqualified to assess such claims who have simply accepted people at their word.

And for a long time, recognized Indigenous communities either didn’t know about it or stayed silent.

That’s over.

With additional reporting by Cherise Seucharan. 

Updated at 11:52 a.m. EDT on 6/21/21 to include the statement provided by the AAFN. Read the entire statement here.

CLARIFICATION: 06/28/21 6:00 PM An earlier version of this article referred to Kyle Brennan, his name is actually Kyle St-Amour-Brennan. 

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