Dr. Alika Lafontaine is a past-president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada and is competing this year to become the first Indigenous president of the Canadian Medical Association.
The first week of medical school felt very lonely. Looking around I quickly realized that I was the only Indigenous person in the room. I would later find out that I was the only Indigenous medical student at the entire school that year. It was hard to ignore the informal questions from classmates, wondering whether I was qualified beyond affirmative action quota requirements and postulating whether I was drawing on tax dollars as part of a “sweet free ride.” I felt I didn’t belong. These weren’t the fraudulent whisperings of someone that had imposter syndrome – I knew my own self enough to realize my capacities – but a tightness in my chest that constantly reminded me that I wasn’t supposed to be there, saying, “These aren’t your People, go home.”
The questions surrounding the Indigeneity of Michelle Latimer, a filmmaker who has publicly identified and been supported by the Indigenous community for many years, has reignited the discussion of ancestral links versus cultural identity. Is there a blood quantum where one becomes “Indigenous enough?” Does it come down to cultural practice? Language fluency? Being accepted by community? All the above? Why does it matter?
For myself, these questions speak to the historical and contemporary disempowerment Indigenous peoples have faced both through government-sanctioned structural racism and persistent societal myths that propagate disempowerment. In a broader sense, this universal concept should be easy for Canadians to connect with: Racism disempowers, just like sexism, ableism, classism and so on disempower. Reframed, the discussion of ancestral links and cultural identity have a much deeper universal meaning. If you’re to take the good that goes along with associating with Indigeneity, do you understand the bad? What are you doing to help the rest of us overcome it? Are you authentic?
Many have fought the good fight against systemic disempowerment of Indigenous peoples in a variety of ways, from the first resistance against settler colonization, to Idle No More and the rise of reconciliation. In the same way, the fight for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ2s+ rights and BIPOC rights have fought to overcome systemic disempowerment and create a new status quo. Learning from those efforts helps us realize that shattering glass ceilings is insufficient to truly empower; we need those at the top to form a chain of support to lift those who would rise in the absence of racism, sexism, ableism, classism et cetera to become their true selves. Society has moved past the time where learning about disempowerment was sufficient for our leaders. We are now in an age where those who have lived experience of disempowerment must sit around those decision-making tables.
This brings us full circle to those who claim ancestral links in the absence of cultural identity – or, more specifically, the inauthentic. While my lifetime of aggregated privilege is a cloak I wear everyday – as a man, fluent English speaker, university graduate and health professional – I still must take that cloak off when I sleep each night. I am forced to remove it when others see the colour of my skin before the content of my character, treating me as nothing more than a one-dimensional caricature.
The contemporary cloak of Indigeneity has evolved as the war against disempowerment carries on. It can now both benefit and harm. While it still has a side that draws cynicism, racialization and discrimination, turned inside out it can also signal others to lift, appreciate, protect and encourage. For the inauthentic, it is a layer they place over their existing, permanent privilege. The inauthentic get to benefit without experiencing the harm.
It should be understandable then, why so many were hurt by Michelle Latimer. She rose on the shoulders of those Indigenous trailblazers who came before her, lifting her to a high vantage point to aid others. When she struggles with understanding why aid is needed, it cheapens the struggle. We have come to a time where we should expect those who we lift to lead to be more than what they might have been in the past. We need them to be authentic leaders.
There are countless ways in which Indigeneity is expressed. There is no single definition of what it means to be a contemporary Indigenous person. But among them all is a connection to home, a yearning to be a part of the broader human experience. That connection can’t be bought, brokered, copied or counterfeit. It must be lived and woven together. The days where the cloak of Indigeneity could be worn for personal benefit and then discarded are ending. Today we demand authenticity.
True empowerment goes beyond empowering ourselves. It brings our People, our communities, into the safe spaces we’ve carved out for them. “These may not be our People,” we say, “but walking side-by-side we can create a home here together.”
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