High stakes in Queen’s faculty Indigenous status row

Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, one of Canada’s most prestigious universities, is enmeshed in a controversy about whether four faculty and another individual involved with Indigenous issues at the university are, in fact, Indigenous.

The row was prompted by the publication of an anonymous “Investigation into false claims to Indigenous identity at Queen’s University”, published on 7 June and amended three days later.

The row threatens to undo decades of efforts by Queen’s to make the university a welcoming place for Indigenous students, by, among other things, offering a BA (Major) in Indigenous Studies, an aboriginal teacher education programme, an MEd in World Indigenous Studies in Education, an MA in Indigenous Policy and Governance, as well as support programmes for Indigenous students in the schools of law, nursing, medicine, and engineering and applied science.

“For too long, our country’s mistreatment and segregation of Indigenous peoples has been hidden from view, only to perpetuate and contribute to their suffering. To move forward in healing, we must acknowledge Queen’s own history as an institution that participated in a colonial tradition that caused great harm to Indigenous people,” said then senate principal and chair of the University Senate, Daniel Woolf, in March 2017.

“The Queen’s community can and must change the narrative. By taking steps to ensure that Indigenous histories are shared, recognising that all students can benefit from Indigenous knowledge, and by creating culturally validating learning environments, we can begin to reduce barriers to education and create a more welcoming, inclusive, and diverse university,” he said at a ceremony marking the school’s 175th anniversary, at which he accepted the Tehontatentsonterontahkhwa or friendship wampum belt.

This wampum belt, a gift from the Clan mothers at the nearby reserve of Tyendinaga (Mohawk) and the Kingston-based Katarokwi Grandmothers’ Council, is placed at the head table at every Senate meeting as a reminder that the meeting is taking place on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) territory.

At the centre of the controversy is whether the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation (AAFN), which Professor Robert Lovelace and another faculty member, and the other individual involved with Indigenous issues, claim membership in, is, in fact, a First Nation, the term that replaced Indian band (and can be thought of as an aboriginally based clan).

As well, the report points to the lax membership standards of the First Nation one professor claims to be a citizen of and the absence of evidence for another professor’s claim to be a citizen in another First Nation.

According to the anonymous report, Robert Lovelace and several other friends founded the AAFN in the 1980s. When he was studying for his PhD in Indigenous Studies at Queen’s, Veldon Coburn, now professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Ottawa, remembers that Lovelace identified as a member of the American Cherokee, a claim repeated in a 2012 Facebook post and disputed by Cherokee genealogist David Cornsilk who told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a radio interview that he could find no record of Lovelace’s family in Cherokee records.

Coburn, on the other hand, a citizen of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation located near Ottawa, Ontario, boasts that “it’s part of American folklore that I have a great, great, great, grandfather who was Cherokee”.

Canada’s Indian Act divides up the 50 or 60 historical Indigenous political groupings that had existed in the 1870s – eg, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), Algonquin, Cree or Dene – into 643 smaller First Nations, many with their own land base (reserve).

While some First Nations have adopted their own membership codes, the vast majority rely on criteria equal to or more stringent than in the Indian Act.

In either case, most members of the First Nations possess government-issued Indian Status identity cards and are called Status Indians. None of the people named in the report possesses an Indian Status identity card.

Some First Nations that control their membership allow women to marry into the nation. Most of these have cultural probation periods in which you show you contribute to the community. The citizenship code of Coburn’s First Nation includes rigorous genealogical tracing to ensure that the applicant does, indeed, meet the Indian Act requirements and additionally, must have at least one Algonquin parent.

By contrast, “the AAFN does not have a rigorous code. You need only sign a form and have a sponsor”, Coburn told University World News.

None of the traditional First Nations near Queen’s University or Sharbot Lake, Ontario, where the AAFN is headquartered, recognise the AAFN as a sister First Nation. Nor do either the Ontario or Canadian governments.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Canadian and Ontario governments’ refusal to recognise AAFN as a legitimate First Nation when it dismissed the appeal of Lovelace v Ontario.

The case originated when Lovelace (acting for the AAFN), the AAFN itself, and several other groups claiming to be First Nations, sued the Ontario Government after being denied access to pooled funds generated by the casinos the Algonquin First Nations operated on Algonquin territory. The lower court found for Lovelace and the other groups. The Appeals Court of Ontario’s reversal of this decision was appealed to the federal supreme court.

Coburn, who received bursaries from the pooled fund for his undergraduate education at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario (on the shore of Lake Superior), summarises the Supreme Court’s decision as, “You are not entitled. You are not a First Nation. You are not Indigenous.”

Anonymous investigation

The anonymous “Investigation into false claims...” uses census, birth, marriage and death records covering the period from 1621-1849, accessible through the online database of the Research Programme in Historical Demography housed at the Université de Montréal.

From 1849 to the present, investigators used public records and census data from Canada and the United States. The investigation “raises significant doubts about the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation’s claims to represent Indigenous membership”, the report says.

Lovelace has not responded to University World News’ request for an interview and University World News has not been able to verify the claims in the report, which have been widely reported in Canada.

While Lovelace’s genealogy does not contain any Indigenous forebears, according to the anonymous report, three professors and the other individual named can point to one or two Indigenous forebears – all of whom lived hundreds of years ago. In one case, this ancestor, an unnamed Nipissing woman (circa 1610) has more than a million descendants, including Canada’s two prime ministers Trudeau.

With equal measures of exasperation and poetry, Coburn says, “Theirs is a community of the graveyard. Why is it that these people think that one magical ancestor hundreds of years ago gives you all the rights and privileges as those who have been living in communities and in ways of life for 6,000 years?”

Strong rejection

Queen’s reaction to the anonymous report was swift and direct. In a short statement issued on 11 June, the administration said: “We reject the anonymous document in question, which is misleading and contains factual inaccuracies including some genealogical information of individuals named in the document. …The university respects and trusts the Indigenous protocols used to identify those it considers Indigenous. The individuals identified in the document are welcome, active, and respected members of the Indigenous and academic communities within the university.”

The media release ended by threatening to “take what action it may deem appropriate to support those whose professional reputations are being maligned”.

Coburn, who says that it was an open secret on Queen’s campus that several white professors were posing as Indigenous, characterised the statement as “giving the backhand to the Algonquin nation”.

Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, thinks Queen’s reacted too quickly and made a mistake by issuing the media release.

A member of the Mi’kmaq Nation at Ugpi’ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation) in Northern New Brunswick, she says: “If Queen’s truly respected Indigenous people, it should have gone to their native faculty and local First Nations and asked, ‘Is there a problem? What’s the problem? How can we address the problem?’ Instead, they basically said, ‘We trust our faculty to self-identify’.”

Claudette Commanda, a citizen of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation (130 km north of Ottawa), told UWN that by supporting the individuals who are laying claim to Indigenous identity, Queen’s has broken faith with the spirit and intent of the wampum belt, which can loosely be equated with a “treaty” between nations.

“In particular,” says Commanda, an Algonquin Knowledge Keeper, “the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation gifted Queen’s University with this belt, it speaks about respect, it speaks about relationship, and Queen’s has not honoured that at all. They broke it.”

Outraged by the Queen’s media release, 108 aboriginal scholars from across Canada (and some from the United States) organised and on 14 June issued an open letter responding to Queen’s University that begins with the words, “Fantasies of white/European settler self-Indigenisation (ie, concerted and strategic efforts by colonisers to eliminate and ‘replace’ native peoples disposed through genocide) drive the stories of many white settler nation-states.”

Instead of rejecting the questions about its faculty, the letter says Queen’s has the responsibility under the Canadian constitution, “to develop transparent policies regarding equity hiring of First Nations, Inuit and Métis (FNIM) faculty”. (The Inuit are the Indigenous people who live in the Arctic Circle, while the Métis are part of the Métis Nation that developed in Canada, chiefly in Western Canada, after settlement by Europeans; like the First Nations, both are recognised in Canadian law.)

Entitled: “Collective Indigenous scholars’ statement on identity and institutional accountability,” the letter points out that “there is a financial and legal incentive for universities to overreport on FNIM hiring given their [the universities’] obligations under programmes such as the Federal Contractors Program and other policies that require universities to meet pre-established equity targets”.

It goes on to assert that 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. Citizenship in Indigenous communities is a matter of sovereignty and self-determination”.

This last point, Palmater emphasised to me when discussing the recommendations she has made to Ryerson and other universities on how to ensure authenticity and accountability and respecting Indigenous peoples’ ‘right to determine who we are’, is: “Keep in mind, it is an internationally protected right for First Nations to determine who their own members are and not for anyone else to self-identify.”

Neither Queen’s University’s second media release (15 June) nor the interview the university Provost Mark Green gave to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) a day later, smoothed the troubled waters.

After quoting the letter – that “membership in our [Indigenous] communities is not a matter of blood quantum, race or colonial categories, but in fact is a matter of integrity and reciprocity” – the administration at Queen’s said that “being privy to authentic personal records, [we] were able to assess and determine that the report had cited erroneous records and ignored important facts”.

They are still doubling down, saying, “Oh, we’ve done a review of the personal files,” notes Palmater dismissively.

Whatever the human resource files say, none of the individuals named in the report currently displays their CV on their university home page.

In the CBC interview, Green was at pains to say that Queen’s was engaging with First Nations. “We are respectful of Indigenous ways of knowing, and recognising the complexities of Indigenous identity.”

Of the AAFN, Green said: “Many people in our local Indigenous communities do acknowledge Ardoch and they have been participating for some time with our Indigenous Council, but I do appreciate that there are others who disagree with those views and perspectives.”

Asked if the university would investigate the allegations raised in the report, Green dodged the question, saying it was a “matter of looking at where the community is and what the community wants with regard to informing what recommendation are necessary”.

When I asked Coburn about Green’s response, for a moment the professor evinced a certain sympathy for the provost: “There were some long awkward pauses there.” Then, Coburn turned to the heart of the matter, “Essentially, he repeated the point, we can determine [who is Indigenous] on our own. But out in the real world, I’m afraid that’s not how it works.”

Scandals involving ‘ethnicity shopping’

The expression of white privilege that Palmater calls “ethnicity shopping” lay at the heart of two scandals in American universities in the past few years. In 2020, Jessica A Krug, professor of African and Latin American studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC, revealed that she was not African-American but, rather, a white woman from Overland Park, Kansas. She attributed her deception to “unaddressed mental health demons”.

For Professor Andrea Smith, who was teaching in the media and cultural studies department at the University of California (Riverside) in 2015 when doubts about her claim to being Cherokee reached a fever pitch, things have turned out better.

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Sarah Viren wrote that while “most native studies scholars no longer work with Smith, she has begun publishing within adjacent fields, like ethnic studies, and has slowly rebuilt her reputation”. Earlier this year, Duke University, which had denounced her at the height of the controversy, published a book that Smith co-edited.

The most famous example of a white man co-opting indigeneity was the Englishman Archibald Stansfield Belaney, who immigrated to Canada in 1906, served in the Canadian army during the First World War, and, in 1925 when he was 37-years-old, started calling himself Grey Owl.

Over the next decade, he traded on this ‘identity’,” lecturing widely, writing numerous books, most with environmental themes (he was an early critic of the claim by forestry companies and the Canadian government that forests could be replanted).

His 1935-36 speaking tour brought him to Britain where he wore Ojibwe clothing and was promoted as a ‘Modern Hiawatha’, telling his audiences, “Remember you belong to nature, not it to you.” He was the “most famous of Canada’s Indians”, wrote the author of his obituary in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on 14 April 1938.

Within weeks, however, the Englishwoman Angele Egwuna came forward to claim his considerable estate. By proving she and Belaney had been married in 1910, she lifted the cover off his carefully constructed Indigenous persona (and, incidentally, showed he was a bigamist by virtue of his 1936 marriage to Yvonne Perrier). In 1992, David Attenborough directed a fawning Grey Owl, starring Pierce Brosnan in the eponymous role.

Palmater says the issue today, where claims to indigenous identity have been found to be misrepresented, is whether they amount to ‘ethnicity shopping’, which can take three different forms.

The first she calls “opportunistic”. “Here’s a job that is just for an Indigenous person. I’m going to self-declare and get that job because then I would get some sort of preferential hiring. Or, look at all these research funds for Indigenous people. I’m going to get my hands on some of that.”

The second scenario she labels “manipulative”. It involves people who “aren’t Indigenous but they want to occupy all the spaces, and places, like media and the arts [reserved for Indigenous people]. They could try for awards that they couldn’t qualify for in other areas, so they are going to try as ‘Indigenous’”, she told University World News.

The third is much darker and shows that what otherwise might be considered a university human resources spat has much wider implications.

On Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, groups such as the Droit des Blancs (Association for White Rights), which brought together white hunters, landowners and cottagers into a movement that opposed negotiating Indigenous territorial agreements with the government, found their efforts stymied because of their obvious white supremacist identification.

Palmater told University World News: “This organisation said, ‘Let’s change our organisation into the Métis of the Red Sun’,” she says, making up the name of such a group, “and claim to be Indigenous and now the government will have to listen to us when we say ‘don’t support those land rights, don’t support this law, don’t support this treaty right’, – so you see them now challenging native rights across the country as a purported native organisation.”

None of the established Métis Nations (most of which are in Western Canada) nor the Quebec government recognise the 20 or so newly self-declared Quebec Métis groups, some of whom have hundreds of members.

The courts have also refused to endorse these groups’ attempts to assert Indigenous rights to public lands because they have not been able to show that they are part of an historical, continuous community.

“But,” says Saint Mary’s University (Halifax, Nova Scotia) Professor Darryl Leroux and author of Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity (2019), “they do have a certain amount of [public] legitimacy in the area, and they are sometimes able to get institutional positions in school boards and colleges that are supposed to be reserved for Indigenous people.”

Palmater worries about what would happen if a white supremacist organisation that had transmogrified itself into a faux Métis organisation were to have its members become part of a university administration or professors.

“They could use their false Métis identity to stop preferential hiring, to stop native research projects, or they could guide the university to say that you need to do this the way you have always done it. Never mind Indigenous or black people.”

Even if this frightening scenario were not to play out, white professors posing as Indigenous scholars exact a heavy toll. Most obviously, they deprive Indigenous scholars of university positions that are – rightfully and legally – theirs.

Another cost is the perpetuation of the colonial system of what the philosopher Michel Foucault called “power/knowledge”, under which those with power determine what is knowledge.

“Literally for hundreds of years, not only has our history been improperly recorded and the truth hasn’t been told, but we’ve been effectively erased from most public institutions. This has been exceptionally prevalent in the university and college-based systems,” Palmater says.

Without faculty who can teach Indigenous courses from “lived experience, from knowledge of the culture, what you get is this really generic New Agey stuff that has nothing to do with a specific culture. So, when I teach as an Indigenous faculty member, I teach from my M’kmaw perspective, and I tell my students, that’s not how they do this in the Mohawk nation”.

A further cost is paid by Indigenous students. Given the high rate of dropping out of university and college by Indigenous students, it is especially important that they see Indigenous scholars in front of the class. These professors not only underscore the importance of Indigenous studies, but also provide role models for an at-risk student population.

“The university is already an alienating place for Indigenous people, their completion rates are much lower than average,” says Coburn. “Indigenous professors can often be anchors for Indigenous students that would otherwise go adrift and leave the academy.”

Coburn is concerned that because of the stature of Queen’s, its acceptance of the AAFN as being legitimately Indigenous “muddies the waters” at a key moment in the Algonquin nation’s history.

For, after 38 years of arduous negotiation, the Algonquins and the Canadian government have an agreement in principle for a modern treaty. The action of Queen’s, he believes, lends legitimacy to people coming forward and laying claim to territorial title of Algonquin lands, and thus would threaten the Algonquin nation’s territorial integrity and relationship with the crown. He says, “Today, the Algonquin nation is looking sideways at Queen’s University.”

Tragic backdrop

The controversy at Queen’s has been playing out against the tragic backdrop of the discovery (with the help of ground search radar) of the remains of 215 children belonging to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in unmarked graves at the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops in Central British Columbia (a finding followed by another discovery of 751 unmarked graves at another former school for First Nation children announced on 23 June). The Kamloops school, which closed in 1976, was run by the Roman Catholic teaching order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Operated between the late 1870s and 1996, these schools were designed to ‘civilise’ the ‘savages’ by taking them from their families and teaching them farming and trades. Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A Macdonald, was blunt about the objective of the residential school system run by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches and several Protestant denominations and paid for by the Government of Canada: to “take the Indian out of the child”.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued in 2015 called these schools, the last of which was closed in 1996, a “cultural genocide”. The report also estimates that there are thousands of such unmarked graves of students who died of neglect, tuberculosis, childhood diseases, the flu and malnutrition on the grounds of the more than 130 sites of residential schools.

After hearing of the tragic news from Kamloops, to honour the children and while grieving with their families, Commanda reached out to an old friend who is from the Kamloops First Nation and asked, “that I, Claudette Commanda, and my family could do a prayer ceremony and an honouring ceremony for his people, for the children”.

A short time later, Commanda stood before flames in a fire pit and took out a bowl from the medicine bundle she carried. As her grandchildren watched, she put the “sacred medicine of sage and sweet grass” into the bowl and lit them on fire. With this smoke, she cleansed both herself and her grandchildren, and the space around them “so we were standing on holy ground”, and she prayed “to the creator and to the spirits of the dead”, she told me.

Holding the offering of tobacco in her hand, she told me the prayer in a hushed tone: “Creator, you know the original names of each of these 215 children and the many more who did not return home. You know their original names.

“Creator, we pray you take our love and tell these children that we love them, we remember them, we honour them.

“And Creator, we offer our love to their families, to their communities and to their nation, for they are our relatives that we grieve with them, we comfort them and we walk with them.”

She then placed the tobacco in the bowl; burning it was the last part of the offering ceremony.

The day I interviewed Palmater (16 June), Kingston's city council voted to remove the statue of Macdonald – whom many historians have consider “the indispensable man” who saw Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick confederate on 1 July 1867 into the Dominion of Canada – from a park near where he had lived.

Nine days earlier (7 June), at Palmater’s Ryerson University, protests by Indigenous students and some affiliated with Black Lives Matter took things into their own hands and, as happened to the slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, UK, in June 2020, toppled the statue of Egerton Ryerson.

Ryerson was one of the architects of the Indian residential school system. Three days later, the statue’s head, half-painted blood red, was found on a pike in Caledonia, Ontario, 80 km west of Niagara Falls, on land the Six Nations Confederacy has claimed.

These small steps at recognition, Palmater told me, are greatly overshadowed by Queen’s response.

“This is the part that hurts the most about Queen’s. They chose, in the context of national mourning over these kids being found in mass graves, and all of the trauma First Nations’ people are going through, to engage in a public spat.”

After saying that Queen’s should have reached out to its Indigenous faculty and First Nations and said they understand the issue and that they want to work with them but on their timeframe, given the shock caused by the discovery of the graves in Kamloops, she paused.

“That’s what a university committed to respectful, meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous people would do,” Palmater said, making her anger clear.