The University of Manitoba aims to introduce a policy in the fall for faculty and students wishing to claim Indigenous identity, sparking discussion about rooting out fraudsters.
The move comes after cases of cultural identity fraud at Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of British Columbia and the University of Saskatchewan among other post-secondaries.
"The challenges that have occurred nationally with Indigenous identity fraud have certainly supported our need to be able to better support our Indigenous colleagues," said Catherine Cook, the University of Manitoba's (UM) vice-president (Indigenous).
"When Indigenous identity fraud occurs, it really does remove an opportunity that was specifically there for Indigenous people."
The policy hasn't been finalized and approved yet, but the university hopes to have it in place in the fall. Nine recommendations were formed through an Indigenous-led community engagement process and were described in a report published in March.
Cook said the policy could include a tiered process of formal and alternative methods for applicants of Indigenous-specific admission categories, faculty positions and scholarships to confirm their heritage.
People applying for those opportunities could be asked to submit formal documentation from federal, provincial, or Indigenous governments and organizations, the report said.
Sharing a personal story, genealogy, letters of support from family members or community leadership may also be requested instead of formal documentation.
Keep self-declarations: UM prof
The university does not want a one-size-fits-all policy approach, according to Cook.
The community engagement sessions stressed that the policy be inclusive to Indigenous people who grew up disconnected from their communities and cultures, are just beginning to connect with their identities at university, or are non-status or don't believe in having formal documentation that verifies their heritage, she said.
Community members also suggested that the policy needs to be given space to progress over time, she said.
"When the self-declaration process was put forward more than 10 years ago, we worked with the best we had at the time … It will be an evolving process. We'll learn as we go and we'll adjust."
Réal Carrière, who is Cree-Métis and a UM assistant professor, turned down a job offer from the University of Saskatchewan last year after declining to provide formal documentation that verified his heritage.
Carrière's family has lived for generations in and around the Cumberland House Cree Nation and adjacent Métis village more than 400 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. He said he contacted Cook upon learning that the university was developing its own Indigenous identity policy to voice his concerns.
"I didn't want something like this — the University of Saskatchewan approach, [which] sort of is built on this assumption that everyone is guilty of identity fraud," he told CBC News.
"I think we should still kind of believe people to be Indigenous. But … when there are fraudulent cases, there should be mechanisms that allow for the institution to act quickly."
He's troubled by one of the alternative methods proposed in the March report, and said Indigenous people shouldn't be forced into telling their stories.
"Our stories are sacred, and are personal, and our own," he said.
Carrière thinks UM's Indigenous identity policy should continue to focus on self-declaration.
"Individuals should be empowered to say who they are."
Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, said Indigenous identity policies that focus on self-declaration have led to widespread fraud at Canadian universities.
"Right now, what we are in is a self-identification free-for-all. There is such a fundamental difference in understanding between Indigenous nations' notion of belonging and this settler notion of choice," she told CBC News.
"When we're talking about Indigenous community belonging, we're not talking about an individual choice. We're talking about belonging, relationships, kinship and citizenship."
TallBear said universities are justified in asking for formal documentation from scholars applying for Indigenous-specific opportunities. She believes it's a double standard to get outraged by that, when most people are required to show identification documents on a regular basis.
"You would not move through the world without providing colonizer ID everywhere you go," she said.
She hopes the development of Indigenous identity policies at prairie universities will show other Canadian schools that self-identification is not sufficient enough to prevent fraudsters.
"I didn't get to self-identify as Dakota. This is not a self-identification. This is a belonging to a community, whether you have status or not," she said.
"There are ways of documenting ancestral, biological relationship to that community, in the event that there is a kind of exclusionary citizenship criteria."
However, she doesn't want Indigenous people who have been removed from their families and/or communities to feel as though the policies are excluding them, when they are meant to weed out people with no ancestral or familial ties to Indigenous communities.
"I really regret and find it unfortunate when our people who have been disconnected for a generation, when they conflate themselves with people like that. They are not the same," she said.
The issue is also international since universities will need to verify documentation for Indigenous students from countries including the United States, Mexico, Hawaii and Sweden, TallBear said.
'Doing nothing is not an option'
It could take several years for Canadian universities to get their Indigenous identity policies right, but she said she's hopeful the policies will stem the tide of people with no credible connections to Indigenous communities from self-declaring.
"There are going to be universities in Canada that do not have nearly the strength and numbers of Indigenous people, and they're going to need to watch those universities that do as we figure it out," she said.
"We have to do something, and it's going to be difficult, and it's going to be a lot of work. There's going to be no easy path through it, but doing nothing is not an option."