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The Peter MacKinnon Building on the University of Saskatchewan campus on May 19.Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press

Réal Carrière, a politics professor of Cree and Métis background, declined a job offer at the University of Saskatchewan in part because he was asked to produce documents that would prove his Indigenous bona fides, a request he calls offensive and contrary to human dignity.

He was among the first people subjected to a new hiring process, in which applicants for a job intended for an Indigenous person have to provide proof of their membership or citizenship in an Indigenous nation.

The new process, which relies primarily on documents, is a response to the controversy over Carrie Bourassa, a celebrated researcher who resigned her post at the University of Saskatchewan this month after questions were raised about her claim to Indigenous identity. It was one of a number of cases at Canadian universities where academics have claimed to be Indigenous only to have doubt cast on their heritage. This has led many to conclude that self-identification, the system that has prevailed for decades, is no longer sufficient.

University of Saskatchewan professor resigns following Indigenous identity questions

But the question of how universities will assess membership in Indigenous communities has yet to be settled. Is it enough to ask a job candidate to provide a document, or is fulfilling such a request an intrusive burden? Should the communities themselves be represented in the assessment process? Can such a process be fair to those whose family ties are clouded by the intergenerational effects of colonialism, those taken from their birth families in the Sixties Scoop, or those whose connections to their cultures were interrupted by the disproportionate impact of the child welfare system on Indigenous youth?

An employer’s chosen method of deciding whose claims are legitimate has profound implications for faculty, staff and students. Prof. Carrière’s case suggests the transition could be complicated.

“I just don’t think that the documentation process aligns with who we are as Indigenous people,” he said. “I found it offensive, unsettling and just wrong.”

In his view, the documents that would prove his membership in Indigenous nations are products of a colonial system designed to control Indigenous people.

Dr. Carrière currently teaches at the University of Manitoba. As he describes it, his identity is somewhat unique. His father is Cree and his mother is of European background. The Carrière name is Métis, but relatives on that side married into Cree families. He is eligible for both Métis and Cree citizenship, he said. His father has Indian status, and Prof. Carrière is in the process of applying for status – but he also has a Métis card he was given as a teenager.

When he presented his admittedly old Métis card at the University of Sasketchewan, his job offer was delayed, and he began to become concerned that he had not provided enough proof. The situation felt wrong, and he worried about students having to go through a similar process.

“I think something should be done to deal with identity fraud. But the documentation, it’s problematic for a number of reasons,” he said.

Non-Indigenous people claiming to be something they aren’t are the issue, he added, and yet it’s his identity that has become a subject of scrutiny.

He said the reliance on documents is contrary to Indigenous philosophy, which holds that a person’s identity is established through their relations. His family ties run deep in Saskatchewan, and could be easily verified.

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Carrie Bourassa is a health researcher working on the national immunity task force.David Stobbe/The Canadian Press

“I feel that I have proven that I am Indigenous and [a] qualified candidate for this position,” Prof. Carrière wrote in an e-mail to the university’s provost in late April. “I am not going to provide any additional proof. If you feel that I need to provide more proof, I am going to withdraw my name for consideration for this position.”

Ultimately, after he was offered the job, he did withdraw.

University of Saskatchewan’s provost, Airini, who uses only one name, said she couldn’t discuss the hiring process, but that the university’s documentation requirements are based on advice it received from Indigenous communities and governments.

Indigenous representatives from universities across Canada met in March for a national conversation on identity verification. The group’s consensus view was that institutions should first ensure that opportunities for Indigenous people don’t go to those they call “race-shifters.” Processes for achieving that goal are still being developed, but a conference summary document says they should include vetting and be Indigenous-led, and specify consequences for those caught making fraudulent claims.

Métis lawyer Jean Teillet told the conference there are differences between Indigenous and settler concepts of identity that need to be bridged. Indigenous identity stems from a connection to a larger group or nation, she said, according to the summary.

“Although there is some aspect of an individual right, the major issue is that one cannot exist as an Indigenous person disconnected from the people from whom you have come.”

Winona Wheeler, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, told the conference that Indigenous identity should not be seen as a problem.

“The problem is fraud. The problem is cultural appropriation,” she said.

Queen’s University was expected to release a report on the subject last month, but it has been delayed, the university said on its website.

At the University of Saskatchewan, a committee of Indigenous faculty and staff was set to unveil a new policy on Indigenous citizenship verification next week. The policy will apply not only to faculty, but also to students and employees who might seek access to funds and resources reserved for Indigenous people.

Angela Jaime, committee chair and interim vice-provost of Indigenous engagement, said documentation, although it stems from a colonial structure, is one way that many Indigenous communities globally determine their membership.

She added that if the university is to verify the membership or citizenship of dozens of faculty members and thousands of students it will need to create a digital system to receive and assess those documents. Doing so would be a large and complex task. Some cases may be straightforward, and others may require deeper discussions.

“People are not always truthful about their connection to Indigenous communities,” Dr. Jaime said. “If we’re not doing our due diligence and protecting Indigenous space and resources, then we’re not adhering to what the Indigenous community is calling for.”

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