Falsifying Indigenous identity a centuries-long issue, says First Nations University president

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First Nations University of Canada president Jacqueline Ottmann says conversations around Indigenous identity need to begin as Indigenous-led discussions with community and university leaders.  (CBC - image credit)
First Nations University of Canada president Jacqueline Ottmann says conversations around Indigenous identity need to begin as Indigenous-led discussions with community and university leaders. (CBC - image credit)

While the issue of falsely claiming Indigenous identity is once again in the public view with recent revelations about a prolific Saskatchewan professor's ancestry, those issues are not new, says the president of the First Nations University of Canada.

Despite claims of Indigeneity by prolific University of Saskatchewan health scientist Carrie Bourassa, a recent CBC investigation found there was no evidence she has Indigenous ancestry.

Since then, Bourassa has been put on leave by both the university and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, where she was the scientific director of Indigenous people's health.

While recently appointed First Nations University of Canada president Jacqueline Ottmann was wary of speaking directly to Bourassa's case, she says it "isn't a new issue."

"It has been an ongoing issue for centuries," she told host Garth Materie in an interview with CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition.

"I'm sure there's different reasons why people choose to falsify their identity, and I'm sure that's very, very individual."

When asked why people might attempt to do that, Ottmann speculated that it could be for grant opportunities, positions or even to engage with inclusive Indigenous communities for a sense of belonging.

"It's hard to generalize why white people step into those spaces," she said.

"I do know that for Indigenous peoples there is a lack of resources in many cases — whether it's granting opportunities or positions within organizations — and so it becomes significant once those spaces are taken by non-Indigenous people."

Ottmann said that the Regina-based First Nations University of Canada hasn't had a formal process for faculty to declare their Indigenous identity during the interviewing process.

To this point, they "haven't had to do that," she said, and those declarations have been informal discussions about connection to community.

"Indigenous peoples have been navigating and validating identity through our own processes and typically, when we meet each other, we talk about who we are and where we come from, and then we go on to discussing networks," she said.

Engaging in dialogue

Ottmann said it makes sense for the First Nations University of Canada to take the lead on a constructive dialogue surrounding Indigenous identity, starting with voices from the community and university leads across Canada.

"It is important for institutions to draw in the local Indigenous communities," she said.

"Those voices are very, very important in progressing forward and I don't think progress can happen without that kind of inclusion."

Having issues of identity in the spotlight provides a chance for change, she said.

"The awareness is there now and so the next steps in even engaging in a national dialogue, it will be Indigenous peoples that will identify the way forward."

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