Rye calls for new RFA Indigenous faculty committee to address ‘pretendian’ academics

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By Sarah Tomlinson

With the number of allegations against academics who falsely claim to be Indigenous growing, Ryerson University is calling for the creation of an Indigenous faculty committee to develop criteria to confirm who they consider to be Indigenous faculty members.

According to the statement released by the university on Nov. 15, the new committee is part of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) created in spring 2021. The MOU states that the new Ryerson Faculty Association (RFA) Indigenous Faculty Committee will be a self-governing committee composed of Indigenous RFA members—such as acting assistant, pre-tenure professors, limited term faculty (LTF), counsellors and librarians, the MOU states. 

In an interview with The Eyeopener, university president Mohamed Lachemi said the creation of this committee will be done by the RFA. 

“The process of hiring Indigenous faculty members raises complex questions of identity and community,” he said. “The Ryerson Faculty Association is the party responsible for ensuring that the committee is constituted as per the memorandum of understanding.” 

The university isn’t the only institution establishing mechanisms to address ‘pretendians’: a person who falsely claims to have Indigenous ancestry. Queen’s University is also launching a consultation process that will seek advice from Indigenous faculty, staff and students on how to build a system that will evaluate identity claims. 

“We have a responsibility to find out and speak the truth” 

This was done in light of the University of Saskatchewan controversy after a CBC investigation cast doubt on claims of Indigenous identity made by one of its most prominent members of faculty, Carrie Bourassa. 

Bourassa, who claims to be Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit, has since been terminated without pay from her position as scientific director of the Canadian Institute of Health Research’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health. She was also suspended and placed on paid leave by the University of Saskatchewan. 

Raven Sinclair, Cree, Assiniboine, Saulteaux, Métis and two-spirit from George Gordon First Nation from Treaty 4 territory in southern Saskatchewan, who lives and works in Treaty 6 territory across the centres of Alberta and Saskatchewan, said that any Indigenous hiring committee should be composed of people whose Indigenous identities have been confirmed.

“If people have claimed to be Indigenous and have been in the institution for a while but there’s no genealogical evidence of historical connection and ancestry in specific communities, then their agendas, we have seen, are attempts to influence any procedures and policies in favour of other pretendians,” said Sinclair, who is also a professor at the University of Regina and member of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Indigenous Research Reference Group.

Sinclair said Ryerson has a multitude of Indigenous scholars like Pam Palmater, Lynn Lavallée, Eva Jewell and Hayden King who could be candidates for the committee. 

“They’re recognized by the national Indigenous academic community. They know who they are. They know who their communities are. There’s no question about their Indigeneity,” she said, adding that the university must then listen to the committee’s feedback. 

“They’re not going to act in isolation. None of them. When they come into those sorts of contexts, they’re taking on a sacred responsibility to speak for themselves, their kinship networks, their communities, the people that they serve, every single one of them.”

Lynn Lavallée is the strategic lead, Indigenous Resurgence in the Faculty of Community Services and is Anishinaabe Métis registered with the Métis Nation of Ontario. She said pretendians offer a great learning opportunity for Canadians given how complex Indigenous identities are. 

“The purpose of colonization was to strip us of our identity, defeather us, so it’s understandable people may be unclear about who they are but we have a responsibility to find out and speak the truth,“ she said. 

 “​​We’re in the truth and reconciliation era. We have to focus on the truth. Everybody needs an Indigenous identity 101 course to understand the complexities of identity.”

Veldon Coburn, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies, said pretendians are generally “harmless.” 

“I only see them really having a detrimental impact on Indigenous people’s lives when they work to displace and dispossess us,” said Coburn, who is Anishinaabe from Pikwàkanagàn. 

“[Pretendians] misrepresent Indigenous existence. Their behaviour and conduct signals all sorts of outlandish things to people”

He referenced a CBC News article in which a recently discovered historical letter linked to more than 1,000 Indigenous ancestry claims was deemed likely to be fake. 

Through this letter, 1,000 descendants of 19th century voyageur Thomas Lagarde claimed they were Algonquin and were thus in a position to potentially make false claims of entitlement to a massive pending land claim agreement involving almost $1 billion and more than 500 square kilometres of land between the Algonquins of Ontario and the federal and Ontario governments.

“That’s where you see material harm,” he said, adding that there are other pretendians who are more symbolic and “superficial.” 

“[Pretendians] misrepresent Indigenous existence. Their behaviour and conduct signals all sorts of outlandish things to people because they pick out stereotypes for them to embellish and exaggerate,” he said. 

Sinclair echoed Coburn’s point. “When pretendians are questioned and react with rage and accusations of harassment and victimization, they don’t realize their behaviour confirms suspicions because Indigenous people don’t react that way. We will tell anyone about our kin and ancestry. It’s not an issue.”

Sinclair added that in some instances, pretendians easily make their way to high positions of power due to institutional racism. 

“Institutions open their arms to pretendians because they fit their racism fuelled image of the ideal ‘Indian’ which, it seems, is a non-‘Indian’,” Sinclair said, adding that they hurt Indigenous communities by taking positions from actual Indigenous people. 

According to the MOU, faculties may decide that an Indigenous hire will be someone with a terminal degree or, alternatively, someone with Indigenous knowledge. 

When a faculty position is designated as an ‘Indigenous hire,’ the MOU states that there must be a tenure stream Indigenous faculty member as a voting member on the department hiring committee (DHC). 

If the DHC doesn’t have an Indigenous faculty as an elected member, the chair or director of the department will appoint an Indigenous faculty member from the Indigenous Faculty Committee for the hiring of the designated Indigenous position only. 

However, when a self-identified Indigenous candidate applies for a regular non-Indigenous faculty position, the DHC shall consult with the Indigenous Faculty Committee, and the Indigenous Human Resources Lead to confirm the validity of the Indigenous candidate.

Bourassa’s situation is just one of many that have surfaced over the years. Jacqueline Keeler, editor-in-chief of Pollen Nation Magazine who is of Dineh and Yankton Dakota heritage, compiled a list of over 150 names of alleged pretendians. 

Coburn said pretendians in academia particularly can obtain grants and collaborate with communities in a “deceitful and exploitative nature.” However, he said the consequences of being discovered can affect both the pretendian and the institution. 

According to an article published by the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, University of British Columbia professor Amie Wolf was fired from her job as an Indigenous education lecturer. This came after she sent death threats to her critics when she was outed for allegedly falsely claiming an Indigenous identity by the Twitter account @nomoreredface. 

“Nobody’s going to want to research with them. Nobody’s going to want to research with anyone that works with them either. Nobody’s going to participate in their conferences,” Coburn said, adding that the enrollment in their courses has the potential to drop and their applications for research grants could be denied.  

Although the MOU was only established in the spring, it states that if an existing Indigenous faculty member has a concern over a previous evaluation that predates the introduction of the evaluation model, they may indicate this and it will be taken into account. 

With regards to hiring Indigenous librarians and professional counsellors, the MOU says that the university and the RFA will meet to develop a hiring and evaluation process by Dec. 31.

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