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Jean Teillet speaks to reporters at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on May 24, 2019.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Jean Teillet is the great-grandniece of Louis Riel and an Indigenous rights lawyer. She is the author of The North-West Is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation, and a new report for the University of Saskatchewan, Indigenous Identity Fraud.

In recent years, there have been a series of high-profile media exposés of people who are falsely taking on an Indigenous identity. They are being called “pretendians.” The word blends “pretend” with “Indians.” It’s a cute word, too cute. The use of the word pretend makes it sound like a game, like something fun, like action with no consequences. People don’t cause harm when they pretend, and pretending has an air of innocence about it because that’s what children do.

There is nothing innocent about falsely assuming Indigenous identity. It’s fraud – intentional deception for personal gain. Lies about the person’s lived experience, their family and where and how they grew up are repeated over decades. Most of the lies play to stereotypical beliefs about Indigenous people. Usually by working for and with Indigenous people, the imposter gains access to opportunities, jobs, money, prestige and power. It’s a deft twist on impersonation. It’s identity theft, it causes harm, there’s a lot of it going on, and it’s a serious problem.

The exposés have awakened universities across Canada. Governments, especially the federal government, are still deaf to the ringing bell. But it’s only a matter of time before a high-profile government employee or politician is exposed. And that will happen because thousands of individual Canadians have falsely assumed an Indigenous identity. Many of them are now embedded in our institutions, including the federal government. That there are thousands of fake Indigenous people in Canada may seem incredible to people who are aware of the high-profile cases, but unaware that those cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The number of those falsely claiming Indigenous identity is actually, according to professor Darryl Leroux, in the tens of thousands.

How did we get here? Well, we’ve been here for a long time – centuries, in fact. Americans dressed up as Indians during the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Archibald Stansfield Belaney, aka Grey Owl (1888-1938), was an early Canadian practitioner. Joseph Boyden’s Uncle Erl, or “Injun Joe,” gleefully admitted to playing Indian to sell trinkets to tourists in Algonquin Park in the 1950s. The difference now is how many people are doing it. The numbers began to increase in the 1990s after the Supreme Court of Canada recognized First Nation hunting and fishing rights. When the court affirmed Métis hunting rights in 2003, it became a trend. As Canadian institutions began to “Indigenize,” the trend turned into a flood.

Indigenization is, first and foremost, a policy announcing that institutions were opening their doors to hire Indigenous people. Indigenization operated on an honour system that accepted self-identification with no questions asked. That was a welcome mat for Indigenous identity impersonators. The media exposés have shown that people will lie their way into these opportunities. The exposés have also revealed that our institutions failed to take any measures to ensure honesty. They believed, and in this they are correct, that it was not their role to say who is Indigenous. That job rests squarely with Indigenous nations. But checking for honesty? That job rests squarely with the hiring institutions.

If Indigenous identity is a job requirement, if it is a targeted Indigenous hire, or if preference is given to Indigenous candidates, then Indigenous identity is a credential that should be verified. No institution should accept self-declaration any more. There need to be ground rules, which means a requirement that individuals must provide objectively verifiable proof of Indigeneity. You should not get a faculty position just because you claim that you are Indigenous. Claiming it for a long time doesn’t mean you should escape scrutiny. You don’t get to identify as Indigenous just because you want to.

Who are these people? In the academy and government, they are mostly white women. In the hunting and fishing realm, they are mostly white men. Some are fabricators who invent an Indigenous identity out of thin air. Others are embellishers who base their Indigenous identity on family stories or secrets that someone in the family was “native.” It is surprising how often the stories involve adoption. Sometimes the claim rests on the thinnest of genealogical needles, such as an Indian ever-so-great-grandmother from the 1600s. With the advent of DNA tests, some claims now rest on a small percentage of native American ancestry.

What these claims have in common is that they are entirely disconnected from any living Indigenous people. They are, as professor Adam Gaudry says, “communing with the dead.” It is a fantasy to believe that adoption is a passport into an Indigenous identity. A “white” person may indeed marry into a First Nation and become a member, but that does not make them Indigenous. It makes them a white person who is a member of a First Nation. It is another fantasy to believe that one drop of ancient Indigenous blood makes one Indigenous. To paraphrase journalist Robert Jago, Indigenous identity is not to be found in a test tube of spit. Indigenous people want to know two things to determine Indigeneity – who your people are and where you come from. This is not a question about ancient ancestry. It is a quest to determine who your living Indigenous relatives are and where they live today. It’s not about ancient history.

Why do they do it? Indigenous impersonation is not an accident. People do it to get something they want – to stop Indigenous people from closing a land claim, to access hunting and fishing rights, or to gain access to jobs. And the payoff is well worth it. Imposters in the academy gain six-figure jobs, prestige, grants and tenure in exchange for a few lies. This kind of impersonation can only be carried out by those with immense privilege. It takes a person with enough knowledge of the gaps in the system to exploit them. It is also another colonial act. If colonialism has not eradicated Indigenous people by starvation, residential schools, the reserve system, taking their lands and languages, scooping their children, and doing everything to assimilate Indigenous peoples, then the final act is to become them. It’s a perverse kind of reverse assimilation.

These performances are honed over many years. The question is why Canadians do not recognize the performance. It is not recognized because the performers feed into pre-existing Indigenous stereotypes and play heavily on tropes of family violence, racism and poverty. (Two recent exposés revealed women who claimed to come from poor families with violence and addictions. But in fact they grew up in nice middle-class neighbourhoods and there was no evidence of family trauma.) We also miss it because Canadians take pride in Indigenous success stories and take credit for that success because, in their telling, it is Canada’s institutions and benevolence that helped them achieve that success. Canada may have historically treated Indigenous people poorly, but look – this successful Indigenous person shows we are better now. Some of the reason why the performance is missed is just ignorance. Canadians don’t know enough about Indigenous people to spot the fakes. Many Canadians simply don’t care.

Some argue that this is cancel culture. They say that these people are excellent at what they do. If they are good at what they do, who cares if they do it in redface? All of this misses the harm these imposters cause. Every time they take that targeted Indigenous job, they take it away from an Indigenous person. Every time they speak as an Indigenous person or for Indigenous people, they are claiming that they have superior knowledge of the Indigenous world. Authentic knowledge coming from real Indigenous people’s voices is shunted away from the microphone. Their representations create a false narrative about Indigenous people. And this, especially when it is done by people in positions of authority and by so many people, has real repercussions. Fraudsters call everything into question. Who is to be trusted now? Are any of those claiming Indigenous identity really Indigenous?

Perhaps the greatest harm of all is the sense of suspicion that now prevails and the loss of trust. Fraud is a poison, and it taints everything it touches. Indigenous identity fraudsters make a mockery of truth and ethical standards. We should care deeply about Indigenous identity fraud and every measure should be taken to put a stop to it.

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