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The Regina campus of the First Nations University of Canada in January, 2010.Troy Fleece/The Globe and Mail

Merelda Fiddler-Potter is a Métis academic and journalist based in Regina.

To me, universities have always represented places where people have the time and space they need to tackle the big questions facing our society.

During my own PhD research, I remember interviewing an Indigenous knowledge keeper who told me that universities house the elite knowledge of our society. This knowledge in turn forms the basis of our country’s laws, values and policies: things that affect every aspect of our lives. This really stuck with me – the idea that universities house precious living knowledge and important scholarship that must be safeguarded. Ever since I started my academic journey, I’ve felt a sense of duty to learn and preserve this knowledge.

Indigenous peoples need to be in these spaces. But it was only recently that we, who have long been studied by outsiders, have been able to contribute to the academy as much as anyone else.

In recent years, governments and universities have become aware of this inequity and have parceled out millions of dollars in funding to bridge significant gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous research streams. The result: Indigenous-focused programs, chair positions, new research projects, hiring targets and strategic plans, which made space for Indigenous academics and Indigenous-led research. Many of the Indigenous academics who have emerged have also been called on to consult for governments and other public and non-profit organizations, to sit on boards representing Indigenous peoples and their communities, and to share Indigenous knowledge and world views.

This should have been nothing but good news. Unfortunately, we now know differently.

Over the four years in which I was completing my PhD, several academics – mostly women – found themselves at the centre of investigations about the authenticity of their claims of Indigenous identity. The highest-profile case was that of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the constitutional lawyer and children’s advocate whose claims of being a treaty Indian of Cree ancestry have been cast into doubt by a CBC investigation – but there have been many others.

Some of the accused have been terminated, lost academic chair positions or honours, and have even been asked to leave boards and other prestigious appointments. Others are trying to stay under the radar, in the hopes that no one speaks up or questions their Indigenous identity claims.

I am not here to write about any specific cases, nor to judge the accused. I do not claim to know their truths. And if recent history is any indication, there are many more revelations to come.

Instead, I am here to raise two important questions that we now all have a responsibility to answer. First: Are academic institutions safe spaces for Indigenous peoples to share and house our knowledge? And second: Are Indigenous women safe in these spaces?

I am a child of separation – my parents split up when I was two years old – and that defined my initial relationship with my community. When I was growing up, I spent most of my time with my French mother, but I lived in the same community as my dad’s Cree and Métis family. It was a challenge to navigate these spaces, and I always struggled with knowing where I belonged. I grew up painfully shy and awkward, wanting to be part of my community, but not knowing where I fit or how to ask to be included.

I tried to bury my insecurities by focusing on my education. I was drawn to stories – both listening to them, and telling them. My family told the most amazing stories about my grandparents and extended family – they were funny, exciting and connected me with my community. It’s what drew me to journalism, a world in which I could seek out and share stories that could make a difference in the world.

After graduating from the University of Regina’s School of Journalism and Communications, I was recruited to help with a journalism program at the First Nations University of Canada. This was a game-changer for me. At FNUniv, I was welcomed into a community of peers, mentors, elders and knowledge keepers who accepted and taught me. I learned about the value of knowledge and the roles we play in the community. I attended ceremonies and learned protocol. I even learned some Cree words and had a chance to learn how to bead my grandmother’s patterns. It was really intimidating to learn my own family history and traditional customs and protocols, but I did my best to enter each space with the right intention. I finally felt like I belonged.

Inspired by this feeling, I went on to the University of Regina for a master’s degree, and my thesis project was a tribute to my Métis family – a research study focused on Métis history and how our identity was formed, from contact to the present day.

At the same time as I was building my academic career, I was telling Indigenous communities’ stories as a CBC journalist. For 16 years, I interviewed families about residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, and pushed to cover the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. As a lecturer at FNUniv, I taught lessons on these same subjects and became a passionate advocate for sharing these truths to correct the public record.

Through my own research and my personal efforts to reconnect with my history, I learned that this work must be done with intention and reciprocity. I will always be grateful to the people at FNUniv who helped me find my way home. Many do not get the opportunity to do this work or find a real place to belong.

This is what makes fraudulent Indigenous identity claims such a deep betrayal.

How can someone who has not understood or even researched their own history be trusted to document and share Indigenous knowledge? Why would we believe that such an academic would treat it with the respect it deserves? And if their intentions are not good – if their claims are about self-promotion and career advancement – how could they so cruelly disrespect the nature of this knowledge, and its keepers?

To be clear, I am not saying that non-Indigenous people can never do this work. There are many who have taken the time to learn and work with a community, and they do that work with honour and respect. But they are honest about their identities, and they do not give guidance as if they are Indigenous peoples and on behalf of our communities. They would never take up that space, because they are actual allies. Their contributions do not put fragile knowledge systems at risk.

That’s what fraud does – and that’s what these false claimants are doing. Fraud threatens the safety of our repositories and the people who contributed that knowledge. It infects our truths with deception. And after several hundred years of oppression and assimilation, this could prove fatal for some systems.

I’ve been reporting stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls since the early 2000s. Sadly, little has changed. The statistics remain largely the same: Indigenous women remain disproportionately vulnerable to violence.

This grim reality also came up in my PhD research. While speaking with an elder, I talked with her about close calls in our own lives, when we almost became one of the statistics. We talked about the different cases in our communities: a university student murdered while studying MMIWG; a mother walking home two blocks from her house, only to never be seen again; a young woman beaten and tossed into a river; a child who seemingly vanished. The one thing they all held in common? They were Indigenous.

Those conversations were a reminder of how unsafe many Indigenous women feel every single day. I thought the academy would be that safe place. But more and more reports emerged of non-Indigenous women taking our places, using our identities, holding positions of power over us, and using, misrepresenting and possibly abusing our knowledge. The journalist in me asked: What does that mean? What are the larger consequences of these actions? What’s at stake?

For me, it means that the safety I’ve searched for my entire life might be an illusion. It means that the mainstream academy, which purports to be inclusive, may in fact be a hostile space where our questions can leave us vulnerable to attack and threaten our professional safety. Has anyone asked what happens to Indigenous people in the academy, particularly women, when they question potential fraudsters? I’ve known several people who have challenged fraudulent identity claims, and many have been personally and professionally attacked for doing so; others have left positions where they no longer felt safe to work.

Those who lie about their identity leave less room for actual Indigenous peoples to gain access to the money, positions and influence that are finally being equitably extended to us. Eventually, their voices and perspectives could replace our own, as they claim to tackle the big questions facing our peoples. This may well be the most nefarious kind of attack on our people: an assault of our identities and our knowledge, from within.

Indigenous academics and journalists shouldn’t have to be the ones investigating and exposing this fraud. Every institution and funding process has rules to prevent academic misconduct; they must be consistently applied. More importantly, all academics, Indigenous or not, understand the intention behind the money and positions made available for Indigenous peoples. These intentions need to mean something.

If universities are to remain sacred places of inquiry, where our biggest questions are tackled and our most important knowledge is stored, then I believe we must ask: Is the academy truly safe for Indigenous women and the knowledge systems of our communities? This is one of those big questions we must answer now.