Why claim to be Indigenous when you’re not?
When a recent CBC investigative piece questioned the indigeneity claims of Memorial University president Vianne Timmons, the revelations may have come as a shock to many.
For others, it reflected a pattern that’s been going on for many years.
Timmons has taken a paid leave of absence while the university ponders its next move.
The parallels between her case and that of prominent Indigenous health expert Carrie Bourassa are striking, so much so that when two sets of journalists with the public broadcaster broke the stories separately, they opened with much the same scenario.
The local article sets the tone with Timmons walking across the stage at the 2019 Indspire awards, holding a trophy awarded for her efforts in education in one hand and an eagle feather a student had given her in the other.
Here’s how the October 2021 exposé on Bourassa began: “With a feather in her hand and a bright blue shawl and Métis sash draped over her shoulders, Carrie Bourassa made her entrance to deliver a TEDx Talk at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in September 2019, where she detailed her personal rags-to-riches story.”
Going further behind the scenes, both Bourassa and Timmons cite similar sources for their claims of native heritage: in short, their father or grandfather told them so.
Timmons says her father was told not to talk about his Mi’kmaw heritage by his parents, but that he shared it with his own family and they’ve been researching it ever since.
Bourassa claimed she was Anishinaabe Métis from Treaty Four Territory and that her Métis grandfather would sit her on his knee and tell her she was going to be successful one day.
However, genealogical records in both cases point to their biological roots being entirely European.
The same goes for Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a prominent academic and former judge who was stripped of a number of honorary degrees and awards after her claims of Cree status were disputed.
Like Timmons, Turpel-Lafond said her father was Indigenous, but had no proof beyond that her grandfather apparently spoke Cree, helped residential school students, and was “adopted” by a Cree chief in some sort of ceremony.
It’s not clear what inspires someone to go down a rabbit hole of Indigenous identity when there’s no clear evidence of it.
A strong and continuous connection to an Indigenous community is usually the most important factor, but not always.
Children who were snatched from parents for adoption, or sent to residential schools, lost their identity in their formative years, but have every reason and right to seek to reclaim what was stolen.
Local journalist Justin Brake recently told National Public Radio (NPR) he was determined to prove his Mi’kmaw heritage first before he felt comfortable laying claim to it.
“At some point, I had to accept that if I'm being 100 per cent honest with myself, if I'm really looking for answers here, I have to accept the possibility that I'm going to land on, no, I'm not Mi'kmaw, and no, I don't have a right to claim my identity,” he said.
In the same NPR piece, University of Texas anthropologist Circe Sturm says race shifters — people who dubiously claim ethnic or Indigenous heritage — do not always realize they are being deceptive.
“I never ran into anyone where I felt like they were overtly lying, and fabricating this in order to get something. It doesn't seem to be that instrumental. I think that most of the people who are engaged in this process of claiming think that they are reclaiming,“ she said.
Caroline Tait, a Métis professor in Saskatchewan who worked with Bourassa, says the kind of attention that comes with claiming native roots can be irresistible after awhile.
“Everybody cheers and claps, and it’s beautiful,” she told the CBC. “It is the performance that we all want from Indigenous people — this performance of being the stoic, spiritual, culturally attached person (with) which we can identify because we’ve seen them in Disney movies.”
Both Bourassa and Turpel-Lafond were defiant when their claims were called into question.
As recently as this month, Turpel-Lafond told media she feels comfortable with her past work and her identity, and raised the spectre of “trial by media.”
Timmons has been more contrite, at first insisting she has always qualified her claims to say she does not identify as Mi’kmaw, and subsequently issuing an apology to any Indigenous people she may have offended.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram