Montreal city councillor steps down as reconciliation advisor after Indigenous identity questioned

A Montreal city councillor says she will no longer be responsible for the city's reconciliation portfolio after questions arose on social media about her Mi'kmaq identity.

Marie-Josée Parent was elected as a municipal councillor for the Champlain-Nuns' Island district of Verdun in 2017 and a year later was appointed by mayor Valerie Plante to the City of Montreal's executive committee as an advisor associated with culture and reconciliation with Indigenous people.

At the time, it was widely reported that she was the first Indigenous councillor elected to Montreal City Hall, identifying as Mi'kmaq on her father's side and Acadian on her mother's side.

But genealogical research conducted by Eric Pouliot-Thisdale says otherwise. The independent researcher posted her family tree, created through public parish registers, to Facebook on Saturday alleging she had no Mi'kmaq ancestors on her father's side.

Dominique Ritchot, co-ordinator at the Société généalogique canadienne-française, researched Parent's genealogy separately and also did not find any Indigenous ancestry on her father's side. Ritchot did find a Mi'kmaq ancestor on Parent's mother's side going back 12 generations.

Parent said, without wanting to go into detail, that the information doesn't align with documents her family has. She said the post was extremely hurtful and called it a form of lateral violence.

She said her family's situation is not easy to understand. They don't know which community they're from, and have yet to finish their family tree.

"My goal has never been to hurt anyone or to make people feel uncomfortable because of this process is something that is important to my family," she said.

"It was a part of oral tradition, a part of something that my family needed and I needed and it's not finished yet."

History of advocacy work

Parent has a long resumé of advocacy work for Indigenous peoples and has sat on boards of directors of a number of Indigenous organizations across the city. Along with her sister André-Yanne Parent, she also founded DestiNations, an organization that wants to establish an Indigenous cultural embassy in Montreal. 

"Even though they may do an excellent job, it is still cultural appropriation," said Pouliot-Thisdale.

"They did accomplish excellent, great things but maybe they should have done so without saying they're Mi'kmaq. Being a public figure and claiming this identity, it's stealing."

Parent said Tuesday she is stepping down from the reconciliation portfolio because she doesn't want her personal story and reclamation of identity to have a negative impact on the city's Indigenous community and ongoing reconciliation work that has included changing the city's flag, renaming Amherst street, and the creation of a new centre near Cabot Square.

The mayor and the commissioner for relations with Indigenous peoples, Marie-Ève Bordeleau, will take over the file, Parent said. 

"Councillor Marie-Josée Parent made the right decision by withdrawing from the executive committee's reconciliation file, considering the discomfort expressed by some people on the way she identifies," said the mayor in a statement.

"This demonstrates her good faith and her sensitivity around these issues of identity." 

Many descendants of French settlers claiming to be Indigenous, says academic

This is not the first time a politician's Indigenous identity has been questioned. Last year, Winnipeg city councillor Sherri Rollins's claim of being "a proud Huron-Wendat woman" was under scrutiny because she's not a member of any modern Indigenous community.

Claims to Indigenous identity by four candidates for the 2019 federal election were also questioned by Darryl Leroux, an associate professor of social justice and community studies at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

Leroux recently published a book called Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity. "There are hundreds and thousands of French descendants, people who are descendants of the earliest French settlers in New France prior to 1670, who are now claiming they are "Indigenous" based on a number of different factors," said Leroux.

He said some of those factors are genealogical research and family lore.

'It's very common in French descendants, whether it's Quebecois, or Franco-Ontarian or Acadian to have stories about a long-ago Indigenous ancestor that either aren't verifiable or just have been exaggerated over time," said Leroux.