Current Problems

Education (6-12)

Canada must act to end the pretendian problem

June 18, 2024

NationTalk: Policy Options – Britain and Canada shaped the definition of Indigenous identity and now some people use shifting definitions to assume it, to great benefit.

When the French and the British started staking their land claims on Turtle Island, they also began what became a centuries-long, surreptitious and destructive practice of interfering with Indigenous identity. It continues to this day. 

It began through brokerage between European invaders. After the decisive defeat of French colonial power, the British maneuvered to ensure French inhabitants would remain allies. This was accomplished by designating French territory, which was located on Algonquin land, Cree land, Mohawk land, and so on.  

Fast-forward to the period following the American Revolutionary War, when the British found themselves in a precarious situation. Their claims were reduced to northern territory which would come to be called Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Included in this was the Ottawa River Valley, the land and waterscape of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg, which lies geographically at the heart of Canada. 

While the British proceeded to expand their territory through the treaty process, creating reserves along the way, French Canadians were reluctant to provide reserve lands for the Algonquin because as per the 1763 Royal Proclamation the land was theirs. Also, according to the British North America Act, land reserved for Indigenous people fell under federal jurisdiction, and there was resistance to federal incursions in what would become Quebec. 

This represents a key turning point: the British, in establishing a mechanism to identify who was an Indian, shaped – and perhaps caused – what we now call pretendianism (when settler people, or their descendants, falsely claim to be Indigenous.) 

In 1850 when Canada was the Province of Canada, the Act for the Better Protections of the Land and Property of the Indians in Lower Canada was brought into effect. It provided a broad definition of who was an Indian, inclusive of anyone of Indian blood, anyone who belongs to the tribe and their descendants, anyone married to an Indian, adopted children and anyone “living with the Indians.” 

Eventually this was amended in the 1857 Civilization Act where the definition was narrowed. In the 1869 Enfranchisement Act it was narrowed further to include only Indian men, women married to Indian men and their children.  

In 1876 this was enshrined in the Indian Act where this sex discrimination remained for more than a century, until Canada reluctantly addressed it. Although the Indian Act was amended in 1985, 2011, 2017, and the “6(1)a All the Way!” clauses proclaimed in 2019, this issue persists.  

History sets the stage for today 

Enter the pretendians. 

Taking advantage of the complexities of Indigenous identity politics, settler Canadians and their descendants have been falsely taking on an Indigenous identity, aka pretendianism. 

While there remains a need to gather empirical data on this despicable practice, members of Indigenous communities are fully aware of the reasons why it happens: it is both lucrative and powerful. 

In one notorious example, Carrie Bourassa was employed as a professor with University of Saskatchewan in the department of community health and epidemiology. In this position she collected an annual salary of $208,555, an income I and many of the Indigenous People who live under the shadow of colonial genocide can only dream of. 

As the director of the Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a federal agency and leading funder of Indigenous health research, she directed funding dollars thus shaping research knowledge productions. Much like the representatives of the Canadian governments continue the theft of our lands and resources, Bourassa became wealthy and influential by assuming Indigenous identity. 

After being outed, she eventually resigned

Going forward, it will be important to consider how organizations and universities can act to prevent Indigenous identity fraud. 

More broadly, while it is said that community acceptance is the ultimate test of Indigeneity, due to the history of Canada interfering with Indigenous identity, this is never a sure thing. For example, it was not until I was registered as a status Indian in 2017 that I became a member of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation.  

Nevertheless, what has become clear to many, including Murray Sinclair, is that self-identification is not sufficient. The problem is that many organizations and universities are complicit in Indigenous identity fraud, in large part because they are constructions of steep hierarchical power and thus are in need of obliging and accommodating employees.  

Where identity meets the Algonquin land claim 

To offer an example of the depth of the issue we need to look no further than the Algonquin land claim in Ontario. The Algonquin, on whose very land Canada’s Parliament illegally squats, were denied a treaty during the historic treaty process

Despite our ancestors petitioning for land and resource rights for centuries, these pleas were denied by colonial authorities, leaving Indigenous communities in a state of destitution. All the while, the lumber industry and settlers took over. 

Today the Algonquin are a minority on our own land. 

It wasn’t until the early 1990s when Ontario and Canada accepted the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn’s land claim. It soon became clear that while Canada was willing to divide the larger Algonquin Nation acting separately with the Ontario Algonquin, they were not willing to move ahead unless the non-status and the four unrecognized Algonquin collectives in Ontario were identified and included. 

Destructive and hurtful infighting ensued throughout the process, which can in part be blamed on the historical internalized oppression and identity politics that Canada imposed on us. 

Through the work of Dr. Veldon Coburn, Algonquin, faculty chair – Indigenous relations at McGill University, recently I came to understand that the fraught Algonquin land claim process was flooded by approximately 4,500 pretendians, a small percentage of Indigenous ancestry yet not Algonquin. 

Since then, some corrective steps have been taken. In 2013 seven hundred and fifty pretendians were removed, and in 2023 an additional 2,000 were removed. 

But the damage was already done. Pretendians shaped, and ultimately voted on the 2015 agreement-in-principle, thus grossly distorting the outcome in what will inevitably result in the annexation of Algonquin territory and final extinguishment of Algonquin land and resource rights on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River. 

House of Commons petition has been initiated by Jo-Anne Green, an Algonquin woman, and supported by other Indigenous people. It seeks to meaningfully address pretendianism in this context, saying: False claims of Indigenous identity and/or ancestry result in misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and false knowledge productions, both cultural and intellectual; and False claims of Indigenous identity and/or ancestry undermine the sovereignty of Indigenous individuals and/or communities by diluting their political representation and their decision-making abilities. 

The petition calls upon the House of Commons to act on and prevent Indigenous identity fraud – essentially, putting an end to pretendianism – through three specific steps.  

First, by ensuring at every step to consult with representatives from First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities; 

Second, by developing and implementing robust legislation that addresses Indigenous identity fraud, which includes establishing clear definitions, mechanisms for enforcement, and legal penalties; 

Finally, by developing and implementing standardized verification protocols and practices to authenticate Indigenous identity claims. 

The theft of Indigenous identity is a matter Canada must address once and for all. The path to an Indigenous-led solution begins by launching an Indigenous-led project to create an Indigenous-led system for establishing legitimate Indigenous identity. Only then can we finally put an end to the dehumanizing practice of pretendianism. 

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission, or a letter to the editor. 

Lynn Gehl

Dr. Lynn Gehl, Algonquin Anishinaabe-Ikwe, is an Indigenist cultural critic, artist, author, and advocate. She is a critic of colonial law and policy that harm Indigenous people and the land. Her work also encompasses the celebration of Indigenous knowledge. 

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