Here we go again – another day, another story about someone with supposed Indigenous roots turning out perhaps not to be who they say they are. After recent reports from Indigenous scholars and the CBC cast doubts on claims to Indigenous ancestry by Carrie Bourassa, a University of Saskatchewan professor in community health and epidemiology as well as the scientific director of the Institute of Indigenous People’s Health, she was put on indefinite paid leave from one position and unpaid leave from the other.
For the longest time, Bourassa told the world her ancestry was Métis, Anishnawbe and Tlingit. But since the reports questioning those claims, she has been unable to verify her ancestry. Now, relieved of her high-profile positions, she can spend all her spare time jigging, beading and carving totem poles.
She is the latest to be suffering from what I consider a cultural form of Munchausen syndrome – when a person pretends to be sick in order to get sympathy and attention from those around them. This particular form of the syndrome, which seems to be on the rise, occurs when somebody pretends to be of another race or people – usually Indigenous – possibly to obtain respect and recognition from others and, some might argue, certain financial benefits as well.
An early practitioner was English expat conservationist Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, who claimed to be Native American and called himself Grey Owl – but even back then, most Indigenous people were suspicious of how Grey or Owl-like he actually was. More recently in the United States, former college instructor Rachel Dolezal claimed to be African-American when in reality she was just a white woman with pigment envy.
As usual, many mainstream Canadians remain puzzled by why this issue constantly causes such a violent reaction in the Indigenous community. “So she fibbed about her past – who hasn’t? My résumé has so many holes in it, it could be the Liberal policy on Indigenous issues.”
What settlers need to appreciate is there are few things more precious and important to Indigenous people than their identity – especially today. This is because for so many years the dominant culture had been trying to take that identity away – to eradicate it; bury it. Residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and many other lesser-known ways helped to dissipate our Indigenous identity. The language, the spirituality, the practices – all had to go far underground to survive, and many are today still brushing the dirt off their shoulders.
It’s a wound that is still healing. So obviously it is tender.
Then people – settlers, if I must be blunt – show up and casually assume the mantle of Indigeneity, sometimes even more successfully than those they imitate. That’s what riles up our people. Just because you might know how to dance an intertribal, make a decent bannock and get beaten up by the police doesn’t make you Indigenous. It’s so much more than that. To me, indigeneity is a combination of both nature and nurture.
Most people in the Indigenous community are actually not fond of the “blood quantum” issue, or the degree to which an individual can prove a certain amount of Indigenous blood. It’s unreliable and misleading – but many believe it’s still better than nothing. You have to start somewhere. But just because you have a distant ancestor some generations back who played “hide the pickerel” with a settler doesn’t make you an authority on anything. Somewhere way back in my mother’s lineage, there was an Irish woman. So I’ve got some Irish blood. I don’t deny it. It’s cool. But it doesn’t make me Irish. Yes, I have a certain fondness for their whisky, stew and Setters, but that’s about it. I actually did find a four-leaf clover once – honest – but that is about the extent of my Irish connection. I don’t think I’ll be applying for a job at the Irish Consulate.
Bourassa says she was adopted by a Métis elder. Good for her. Being adopted into the culture is an age-old practice honoured by many First Nation and Métis peoples. But I was similarly “adopted” into academia, thanks to a Doctorate of Laws from Mount Allison University. It’s an honorary degree, mind you, so I don’t think I’ll be spending much time in the Canadian courts – at least not as a practising lawyer.
You have to have been shaped by the history, the culture and the very people you claim to belong to before you can speak with an Indigenous voice.
Part of the sincere anger over Dolezal’s actions was that she was president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. See the irony? Maybe not that different from Bourassa and her own lofty titles.
Bourassa may very well have aspired to be part of our cultures. That’s not to say dreams and wishes aren’t important – I shudder at the thought of a world without them. But speaking in another person’s voice should remain a ventriloquist act.
Of course, I could be making all of this up – just spinning a fancy tale. After all, you know how we Irish are.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
Editor’s note: Prof. Bourassa was placed on indefinite leave without pay Monday from her position as scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health. She was also suspended and placed on paid leave by the University of Saskatchewan, where she holds an appointment in the college of medicine as a professor of community health and epidemiology. An earlier version of this article said she was on unpaid leave on both.
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