False Indigeneity claims: Who are the enablers in academia?

Darryl Leroux, associate professor in the department of social justice and community studies at Saint Mary’s University, Canada, has observed a growing trend among North Americans in recent decades when it comes to claims to Indigenous identity, in particular, the claims that have arisen from French descendants who favour ‘Métis’ identity in their transition from French to Indigenous status.

The desire to shift from a white identity to embrace Métis heritage is an “aspirational descent” phenomenon, according to Leroux, author of the book Distorted Descent: White claims to Indigenous identity. He asserts that this is in effect a land claims strategy, which translates into a repeated narrative that encourages false claims to be Indigenous.

This narrative annihilates the voices and presence of the original Indigenous communities as the lawful owners of the land.

In a 2017 article, Leroux and Adam Gaudry, assistant professor in the faculty of Native studies and department of political science at the University of Alberta, describe the self-imposed, self-identification trend as “settler self-Indigenisation”, contending that, in the United States, the Cherokee community – where only a third of those who claim a Cherokee identity are enrolled in one of the three federally recognised Cherokee tribes – is seeing a significant number of white settlers attempting to “race-shift” to self-identified Indigeneity.

Competing for recognition

Unfortunately, within these reconstructions of Indigenous identity, the self-identified Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States create a fluid space in which they compete for recognition as Indigenous communities.

Recent false Indigeneity claims and refutations by academics in Canada (including Vianne Timmons whose fraudulent claims as president of Memorial University, Canada, are currently making headlines everywhere; University of Saskatchewan Professor Carrie Bourassa who resigned as a result of claims; and former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond) have spotlighted the intrinsically problematic narratives of settler communities self-identifying as Indigenous identities.

At the same time this trend highlights the inequities faced by Indigenous communities who are governed by non-Indigenous governance structures, creates disharmony and erases the identities and histories of authentically framed Indigenous communities.

There has been rising media attention given to Indigeneity claims among higher education scholars and disciplinary instructors in the United States, Australia and Canada (including those who work within non-academic spaces) who self-identify as Métis or Mi’kmaq or other Indigeneities in different regions.

Elizabeth Watt and Emma Kowal assert that in Australia self-identified Indigenous individuals or groups, known as ‘New Identifiers’, are warmly received by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups. However, there is discontent in Australia, as there is in the US and Canada, about New Identifiers usurping “Indigenous-identified positions”.

The problem of self-identification

Within international higher education institutions and contexts, Indigenous self-identification should be contested at the deepest level of authenticity by a collective circle of Elders as gatekeepers who can conduct a fair review of the facts with wisdom and knowledge. Self-identification should no longer be able to be taken on its own as the sole criterion for belonging.

Empowering criteria such as truth, equity, justice and acceptable supporting evidence to enhance Indigenisation impact through respectful dialogue should be included to strengthen the authenticity component of the right to claim Indigenous identity.

There is a burden of responsibility on all stakeholder groups to interrogate the enablers (those who hold power within higher education institutions such as the board of governors or regents, chief executives, presidents and vice-presidents, provosts and vice-provosts, deans and directors) who are responsible and accountable for encouraging rogue Indigenisation identity theft without scrutiny, without protest action and without a moral compass.

The fact that questions have been raised about the rights to Indigenous self-identification among higher education employees highlights that a more stringent set of principles needs to be advanced to combat Indigenous identity theft.

When Carrie Bourassa’s Indigenous identity was called into question in October 2021 at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, the university noted that “it recognises that self-identification is no longer sufficient for Indigenous-specific appointments”. The university released an Indigenous Identity Fraud report in November 2022.

In October 2022, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the Indigenous ancestry claims of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre’s founding director, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, were laid bare following an investigation.

Further, Queen’s University “apologised over a case in which six faculty were regarded as falsely claiming Indigenous status” and the “university issued a report promising to recognise as Indigenous only those faculty with both Indigenous citizenship and a lived experience as Indigenous”.

Indigeneity claims from academics in higher education are cause for concern, especially when higher education internationally is expected to enlighten stakeholder communities about the truth and when executive leadership, academic communities, learners and stakeholder groups are charged with upholding a moral code.

Memorial University’s Timmons had to recently defend her claims of Mi’kmaq heritage, which have been floating for over a decade when she was president at the University of Regina. The National Post reported that “largely during a 12-year period when she served as president of the University of Regina, Vianne Timmons frequently cited Mi’kmaw ancestry in her CV and in official bio’s”.

However, on 7 March (before the 8 March “extensive feature by CBC’s Atlantic Investigative Unit” probe made headlines) Timmons publicly stated: “I am not Mi’kmaq. I am not Indigenous. I did not grow up in an Indigenous community. Nor was I raised to learn the ways of Indigenous culture. My family, through my father, is of Mi’kmaw ancestry and heritage.”

She has now taken temporary leave as the school’s board of regents considers its next steps through an Indigenous-led roundtable.

Who is responsible?

Pam Palmater, professor and chair in Indigenous governance and a Mi’kmaq lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nations in northern New Brunswick, issued a recent call for Memorial University to investigate Timmons’s Indigeneity claims which, in my view, should include an in-depth investigation of her executive leadership teams at Memorial University and the University of Regina.

Further to Palmater’s call for her suspension, I also argue that the termination of contract clause should be revisited to ensure that suspension or other long-term decisions about Timmons’s future do not continue to carry the rewards embedded in that contract.

So who is responsible for propping up their presidents’, provosts’ and senior academics’ Indigeneity claims? Who is accountable for allowing these higher education leaders to record and steal the voices of Indigenous communities who are vulnerable within the broader context of their lived experiences?

Is it the provincial governments, board of regents or governors, the vice-presidents, provosts, deans and directors? Or is it the whole stakeholder community of enablers who surround the presidents and executive leadership as their confidantes in higher education institutions (at the University of Saskatchewan, University of Regina, University of British Columbia, Queen’s University and Memorial University)?

Should we then be interrogating the enablers: those who conceal their masters’ and mistresses’ dark side, giving credence to an individual’s or group’s claim to Indigeneity and upholding that claim as authentic?

It is necessary to critically analyse the Indigeneity claims of the international higher education community and to rid ourselves of the apathy and malaise that is evident in the ongoing repetitive grind.

The recycling of the old guards of higher education (presidents, provosts, vice-chancellors and so on) who move from higher education institution to higher education institution, some of whom may be masters and mistresses of disguise as they take on new leadership roles, is anti-progressive. To achieve meaningful change, they must be challenged by the people they serve.

Dr Fay Patel is an academic, researcher and international higher education consultant who has contributed to higher education programmes and projects in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, South Africa, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Patel was the former associate vice-president, teaching and student analytics, at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. She also contributed to the UNESCO Forums (by invitation of UNESCO Bangkok) in Bangkok, Thailand and in Chengdu, China; as external peer reviewer in the World Bank quality assurance project Bangladesh; as senior case manager at the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency in Melbourne, Australia; and as an independent reviewer in the Peer Review Portal project in Tasmania, Australia. Patel is the editor of the book (2021) Power Imbalance, Bullying and Harassment in Academia and the Glocal (Local and Global) Workplace.