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Queen's University campus in Kingston, Ont., on March 18, 2020.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

An independent report on Indigenous identity issues at Queen’s University says current and future staff should be required to prove their Indigenous citizenship in order to take on certain roles.

The report to be released Friday stems from the public reaction to a document that circulated on social media a year ago which cast doubt on the claims to Indigenous identity of six members of faculty and people otherwise connected to Queen’s. They included people alleged to have based their identity claim on a distant ancestor or their links to a non-status First Nation not recognized by the federal government, the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. When the document was released, the nation said they were dismayed by its allegations.

More than 100 Indigenous academics signed a letter calling on the university to address the questions raised in the document, whose author or authors remained anonymous.

The report comes amid scrutiny of notable public figures claiming to be Indigenous, including a University of Saskatchewan professor who resigned last month after a CBC investigation cast doubts on her Indigenous citizenship.

The Ottawa-based Indigenous advisory firm First Peoples Group was commissioned to report on Indigenous hiring practices, based on interviews with Indigenous faculty, students and community members. Their report makes seven recommendations, including the need for an apology for the hurt caused by this issue, the creation of a clear Indigenous identification policy and the establishment of an Indigenous studies department. Queen’s does offer Indigenous studies programs but lacks a department specializing in the field.

Queen’s principal Patrick Deane said the university accepts all the recommendations in principle. It will now move to implement them “with care and consideration,” he said.

The first step is to immediately create an Indigenous oversight council to devise an Indigenous identity policy, he said. The council’s membership will include Indigenous scholars as well as representatives of the First Nations on whose territory the university sits. The report named four nations: the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, Alderville First Nation, and the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg.

He said the process will be Indigenous-led and may take some time to come together, but he would hope to have it complete within a year. Then will come the more complex task of implementing the policy.

The consultants’ report says that, for almost all Indigenous nations and peoples, “identity applied through citizenship is never difficult to discern.”

Self-identification, the honour system that has prevailed for several decades, is no longer seen as adequate by many Indigenous people, particularly after high-profile cases of academics, authors and others coming under scrutiny for their claims to an Indigenous background.

But how to prove identity is a thorny question, since one of the ways many First Nations do so is by issuing documents and identity cards, which some regard as a colonial system. In some cases, people with strong claims may have difficulty connecting with recognized representative organizations because they were forcibly displaced by the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop. Others wonder why the burden falls on Indigenous people to prove their bona fides when the issue is fraud committed by non-Indigenous people.

Queen’s chancellor, former senator and Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair said the Indigenous oversight council will have to address these questions, but it’s clear that self-identification is no longer enough, and a more rigorous process needs to be devised.

“The university is struggling with this issue and has not been able to come to an appropriate settlement of the question of how to accept the self-identification of Indigenous people. Through this process, we hope not only to put Queen’s on a firmer footing, but we hope to lead by example the other universities in Canada,” Mr. Sinclair said.

Another issue raised in the consultant’s report is what to do about those already working at the university whose identity claims have been questioned.

“We heard strongly that people whose claims of identity are unproven or may be unprovable be moved out of positions of influence in any Indigenous course or program or related field of study,” the report states. “Opinion here ranges from termination to finding alternative assignments at the university for those who have been found to not meet new requirements Queen’s puts in place.”

A year ago Mr. Dean said that professors named in the allegations would remain on staff. This week he said that question will eventually be addressed, but the policy direction will stem from the work of the Indigenous oversight council.

“Our implementations of whatever set of criteria is brought to bear is going to have to be done on a case-by-case basis. And we have to work within collective agreements and labour law in order to bring this process to an equitable, just and fair outcome which satisfies the Indigenous community, but is also fair in its treatment of the individuals concerned.”

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Queen’s principal.

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