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Dr. Carrie Bourassa.Dave Stobbe/University of Saskatchewan

Queen’s University is launching consultations on how to assess Indigenous identity claims in hiring, a first step in establishing what could be a national model for universities struggling to deal with allegations of identity fraud among their faculty.

Queen’s in Kingston said it realized this year that it had not applied the required rigour to questions of identity in hiring and other processes, such as scholarships, where belonging to an Indigenous community can be a factor.

Kanonhysonne Janice Hill, associate vice-principal for Indigenous initiatives and reconciliation, said universities across Canada are asking themselves how to establish a fair and consistent process to ensure that positions and awards intended for Indigenous faculty, staff and students actually go to Indigenous people.

“Across the postsecondary sector, and in many other sectors in our country, there have been claims of fraudulent Indigenous identity,” Prof. Hill said. “Many initiatives are put in place to advantage Indigenous populations. And so we have to be sure that the people those programs are intended for are the ones that are actually the recipients.”

The University of Saskatchewan is embroiled in controversy after a CBC investigation cast doubt on the claims of Indigenous identity made by one of its most prominent members of faculty, Carrie Bourassa.

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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. The university said it had serious concerns about some of the information Prof. Bourassa provided in interviews over the past week and said it has launched an investigation.

Prof. Bourassa declined an interview request Tuesday and said her public-relations team would be in touch in the future.

University of Saskatchewan provost Airini, who uses one name, said the university takes seriously the claims being made and the potential harm that has been caused, which is why it has launched an investigation. Prof. Bourassa will not be able to carry on her scholarly work while the investigation is under way, Dr. Airini said.

Dr. Airini said the university recognizes that self-identification, a kind of honour system, is no longer sufficient for determining Indigenous identity. She said the university reserves the right, when hiring for an Indigenous faculty position, to consult with Indigenous communities and to require proof.

“What’s happening in the postsecondary sector is a live issue for any organization wishing to increase Indigenous representation,” said Dr. Airini, who is herself an Indigenous scholar. “We need universities to have these brave discussions and we need universities to be open to them.”

Winona Wheeler, a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, said Indigenous faculty have been urging the university to adopt a formal process for assessing identity claims. She said a council of Indigenous academics and elders could do the job. There are complications in some cases, as not all Indigenous people have formal status because of a variety of factors, including adoption and family separation, but that’s understood, she said.

“Universities are terrified of doing that kind of stuff, because they’re scared of breaching human rights and scared of being sued. But that’s the way it’s got to be done. There’s got to be criteria in place,” Prof. Wheeler said. “Most important is that you are accepted and belong to a community, and that you can trace your lineage to this community.”

Last June, Queen’s responded to a dossier circulated online that cast doubt on the Indigenous identity of several people associated with the school, some of them members of the teaching faculty.

At the time, the chancellor at Queen’s, former senator and Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair, said it was clear that the process in place in most universities for establishing Indigenous identity is inadequate.

Queen’s is now launching a consultation process that will seek advice from Indigenous faculty, staff and students on how to build a system that will evaluate identity claims.

“We haven’t discovered any existing models that are true and tried,” Prof. Hill said. “I’m getting requests from other institutions to share what we find out, because everyone’s struggling with the same questions right now.”

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