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Education (6-12)

MUN has to weed out false Indigenous claims, report says — but the path forward is unclear

May 23, 2024

First Peoples Group report on Indigenous verification draws ire of NunatuKavut community council

A man with grey hair and rounded glasses has his arms folded on a wooden table in front of him.
Neil Bose, president and vice-chancellor of Memorial University, replaced Vianne Timmons, who was removed from the position following a CBC News story on her previous comments on her Indigenous ancestry. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

CBC News: An independent consultant has given Memorial University its final report on Indigenous verification. Now it’s up to the university to decide who is Indigenous and who is not, and in Newfoundland and Labrador, that’s no easy question.

The university hired First Peoples Group, a Canadian Indigenous advisory firm, to hold consultations with Indigenous groups and make recommendations on future identity policy.

Neil Bose, vice-chancellor and interim president of the university, said at this juncture the recommendations are just that. 

“We need to determine the best course of action going forward, but we have made no decisions yet,” said Bose in an interview Thursday. “Any decisions that we do take will be through the full process of consultations and policy protocol development.”

The report recommends verifying an Indigenous collective through a two-pronged approach: federal government recognition under Section 35 of the Constitution Act and/or acceptance by other federally recognized Indigenous groups.

The stakes are high in getting it right, Bose said, as identity policy will determine who can and cannot access Indigenous scholarships and jobs.

The university currently works on an honour system of self-declaration. 

“We need to come up with some kind of protocol because during all of the process, we actually have Indigenous students applying for Indigenous scholarships. We have Indigenous faculty teaching Indigenous subjects,” he said.

A difference of opinion

What’s clear from this report is that there is a wide spectrum of opinion.

Some participants said the university shouldn’t police identity at all, while others said allowing the potential for false claims is colonialist.

A report for MUN recommends how the university should determine who is Indigenous

WATCH | MUN’s president and Nunatukavut’s president disagree about an independent report about indigeneity: 6 days ago, Duration 1:18

An independent report done by First Peoples Group includes recommendations about verifying indigeneity of students and professors. MUN president Neil Bose says there is still consultation to happen on the report. But Nunatukavut President Todd Russell says it’s biased.

Click on the following link to view the video:

The report cited one instance in which Memorial University hired a non-Inuk throat singer to perform at the university. 

“This performer had learned throat singing from an Inuk and then exploited this teaching, which was shared in good faith to benefit professionally and financially,” the report said.

“Furthermore, this person misrepresented themselves and Inuit whom they learned from. Participants felt that this incident could have been prevented by an Indigenous verification protocol.”

But perhaps the biggest point of contention is over which collectives should be included at all.

“Many participants voiced that Memorial University will lose credibility with legitimate Indigenous collectives from partnering with and granting opportunities to unrecognized collectives such as NCC [NunatuKavut community council],” the report said.

A bald man wearing a white hooded pullover.
Todd Russell, president of NunatuKavut community council, calls Thursday’s report ‘useless.’ (Mark Quinn/CBC)

NunatuKavut President Todd Russell called the report “useless.”

“It is biased, it is prejudicial to the rights and interests of NunatuKavut Inuit,” he said Thursday afternoon.

Russell, whose group says it represents about 6,000 Inuit in central and southern Labrador, says the process was flawed at the outset.

He said he was called by Catharyn Andersen, vice-president of Indigenous matters, last year in the wake of former university president Vianne Timmons’s departure. Timmons left the institution after a CBC News investigation raised questions about her previous statements about her Indigenous ancestry and membership in an unrecognized band. 

Russell said Andersen told him NunatuKavut would not be included in an Indigenous roundtable on the matter. The roundtable was later scrapped in favour of a the First Persons Group report.

Until then, Russell said, the university had a burgeoning relationship with NunatuKavut.

“It is a report that … arrives at a particular conclusion around NunatuKavut Inuit that we feel panders to the political campaign against NunatuKavut Inuit by some other Indigenous organizations,” he said.

“And we feel that the Office of the Vice President for Indigenous has been complicit in this process.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, MUN spokesperson Courtenay Griffin said there was a discussion with Russell about NunatuKavut being excluded from the roundtable. 

“Universities across the country have been in conversation about Indigenous verification, and several universities now have new policies in place that, at their core, rely on federally-recognized Indigenous groups,” Griffin wrote.

“As a result, we decided to proceed with four federally recognized groups in the province.”

Following feedback from NunatuKavut and others, the university decided against the roundtable, Griffin said. 

“To date, NCC has participated in all of our independent consultation processes on Indigenous verification.”

‘A difficult situation to be in’

The Innu Nation, national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Nunatsiavut government — which represents Inuit in five communities on Labrador’s north coast — have for years disputed those claims and the legitimacy of NunatuKavut’s Indigenous status.

Innu leaders are contesting a 2019 memorandum of understanding in which the Canadian government recognized NunatuKavut as an “Indigenous collective.”

The Innu Nation did not respond to an interview request from CBC News on Thursday. The Nunatsiavut government said it is still reviewing the report. 

While Bose said those issues extend beyond the university, it is now up to the institution to deal with them. 

“That’s a difficult situation to be in. It’s not just the one group, actually, there’s more than one group and on the island actually,” he said. “That’s why it’s not going to be a fast process. We need to listen to both sides of that.”

A group of men sitting behind a long desk with Canadian flags in the background.
The Innu Nation, national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Nunatsiavut government have for years disputed the claims and the legitimacy of NunatuKavut’s Indigenous status. (CBC)

Bose would not put a timeline on when such a policy would be developed. 

Memorial University follows many other Canadian academic institutions grappling with the same issues. Many have commissioned similar reports in the wake of high-profile professors having claims to Indigenous identity debunked.

“Obviously we are watching what happens elsewhere. We’re also noting that things have not been perfect elsewhere,” Bose said. 

There are approximately 1,100 self-identified Indigenous students studying at the university, both on campus and online. NunatuKavut estimates it has more than 100 students currently enrolled at Memorial University. 


Ariana Kelland, Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John’s. She is working as a member of CBC’s Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email: