After months of consultation about how to stop “pretend Indians” from taking jobs and scholarships meant for genuine Indigenous people, the University of Saskatchewan has decided to rely on Indigenous governments to verify identity.
And that will mean a reliance on status cards and the Métis citizenship registry.
Both are controversial in some quarters.
Last fall, the university found itself in the middle of a national scandal after a CBC investigation found that Carrie Bourassa, a high-profile professor at the U of S who had claimed to be Indigenous, was in fact of entirely European ancestry. She subsequently resigned her position.
Until that moment, the university had relied on the honour system when it came to Indigenous ancestry. If someone self-identified as Métis or First Nations, that was deemed sufficient.
However, U of S president Peter Stoicheff said in an interview it has become clear that “self identification is no longer adequate” and going forward, “documentation and verification will be required.”
The university struck a 28-person task force made up of Indigenous elders, professors, politicians, administrators and others to determine what to do next.
Stoicheff says the task force concluded that the university must not be involved in the business of deciding who is and who is not Indigenous.
“The main feature is it’s not up to us as a university community to determine,” he said. Stoicheff added that on the advice of the task force, the university will be looking to Indigenous governments including First Nations band councils and the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S) “to determine what that documentation looks like.”
Mark Arcand, tribal chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, which represents seven First Nations, says the U of S is on the right track.
“What I’m pleased about with the University of Saskatchewan is they relied on the Indigenous people to actually come together and say, ‘Here’s what the expectation is when you’re applying for a position at the university,'” said Arcand, who served on the task force that, he said, met every two weeks from January to June.
Status cards show ‘true identity’
According to Arcand, determining who is a First Nations person is a “black-and-white” matter.
“It’s very simple for us,” he said. “If somebody said ‘Prove who you are,’ boom, you can prove it right now.”
That proof, he says, is the Indian status card issued by the federal government to all First Nations band members.
He says those cards prove that someone has a First Nations mother or father and is a legitimate heir of the treaties Canada signed with Indian people.
“So it’s a very influential card … to justify you come from First Nations roots,” he said. “I can go on behalf of the First Nations people and I’m pretty sure every chief across this province would support it and say, ‘Yes, show your true identity,’ which is – here’s your card.”
He said the days of the honour system are over, “so the ownership lands on the individual to justify and prove their credibility or their lineage through that process. We are proud to show our citizenship through our status card.”
Status cards part of colonial system
Some Indigenous people are offended by the reliance on a card to prove identity.
Recently, Réal Carrière, a Cree and Métis scholar from the University of Manitoba, called out the U of S for its new approach to identity verification.
Earlier this year, he applied for a position at the U of S that had been set aside for an Indigenous person. But he withdrew his application after it became clear that the university would require documentation proving membership or citizenship in an Indigenous community.
In an interview earlier this year, Carrière told CBC “our identity has been policed for generations. Now we’re reducing it to a status card or piece of paper? Is this reconciliation?”
Carrière told the Globe and Mail that he qualifies for an Indian status card and the Metis citizenship registry. However, the paper reported, he refused to provide the documentation requested because it is the product “of a colonial system designed to control Indigenous people.”
“I just don’t think that the documentation process aligns with who we are as Indigenous people,” he told the newspaper. “I found it offensive, unsettling and just wrong.”
What I’m pleased about with the University of Saskatchewan is they relied on the Indigenous people to actually come together and say, ‘Here’s what the expectation is when you’re applying for a position at the university.'”– Mark Arcand, tribal chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council
He says it was even worse because a U of S committee of mostly Indigenous faculty interviewed him and concluded he is Indigenous.
Stoicheff says privacy considerations mean he can’t speak specifically about the Carrière situation. But he did point out that months ago, he committed to Indigenous leaders that the university would defer to them when verifying Indigenous ancestry and community membership.
Given that, he said, if he told those leaders that he was going to hire someone on the recommendation of a committee of university employees, “I don’t believe that I would be acting as a real partner with Indigenous communities or leaders.”
Chief Arcand agrees with Carrière that the status card is part of a system imposed by colonization but he said “until we change that system we have to follow that system.”
Despite the troubled history of the status card, he said it is a good indicator of who really is Indigenous because “it verifies where people are tied to a First Nation.”
“It shows your roots,” Arcand said.
He says most First Nations people have no problem showing their status card when there are benefits to be gained, such as saving the tax on a gasoline purchase or a vehicle purchase.
“So are you going to tell [car dealer] ‘That’s a colonial system. I’m going to pay tax?'” he said. “Then go ahead, pay tax.”
Metis citizenship criteria must be met
In the case of Métis people, the matter is a bit more complex.
According to census data, there are about 80,000 Métis people in Saskatchewan. But right now, the MN-S, the political body representing Métis people in the province, has just 25,000 people on its citizenship registry.
The registry was established in 2009.
Chris Belhumeur, a policy analyst in Regina, says he recently went through the process to get his citizenship card and he found the process quite rigorous.
“You do have to provide genealogy research proof and things like birth certificates and marriage certificates and death certificates and show exactly who you are,” he said.
I just don’t think that the documentation process aligns with who we are as Indigenous people. I found it offensive, unsettling and just wrong.– Réal Carrière in an interview with the Globe and Mail
He says he didn’t apply for a card until after the Bourassa scandal. Until recently, he says he wasn’t convinced that the MN-S had the capacity to properly run a registry, and he wasn’t persuaded that it was necessary to get a card.
However, he now sees the registry as “the gold standard” for Métis identity.
Angela Jaime, vice-provost indigenous engagement at the U of S, chaired the 28-person task force. She said that process made it clear that while many Métis people are comfortable with the Métis citizenship registry “not everybody wants to register as a citizen.”
“There’s some people who have adamant values that they wouldn’t want to be part of that political organization,” Jaime said, adding the policy reflects that fact.
Jaime says that by agreement between the university and the MN-S, a Métis person applying for an Indigenous-specific job or scholarship has two options: They can show their Métis citizenship card or they can go through the Métis citizenship verification process and receive a letter of authentication from the MN-S registrar.
“So they don’t have to be a citizen of Métis Nation-Saskatchewan,” Jaime said. “They just have to meet the criteria.”
Mixed Métis messages
The MN-S itself offered mixed messages about the new policy.
In an interview with the CBC, the president of the MN-S, Glen McCallum, directly contradicted Jaime’s explanation of the policy.
He says if someone wants to claim to be Métis and apply for benefits at the U of S, they must be a Métis citizen.
“I have to produce my Métis card in order for me to have the university qualify me or recognize me as a Métis,” McCallum said in an interview Thursday. “That’s the bottom line of the agreement that we signed — that people have to register with the Métis Nation”
He said there would be no accommodation for those who “have an attitude toward the Metis Nation,” or who have spent years “being negative toward the nation.”
When CBC pointed out to McCallum that he was contradicting the U of S he scolded the reporter.
“You don’t want to listen to the [Métis] government position that I have in regards to protocols,” he said.
But late in the day, the MN-S sent the CBC a clarification of the president’s comments, which affirmed that the MN-S position aligned with the U of S.
“The agreement held between the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and University of Saskatchewan is premised on the verification of citizenship by MN-S,” the statement says. “Through this process, the MN-S will either verify that the person is a citizen or meets eligibility requirements for citizenship.”
What about non-status Indians?
Kelly Mortensen, a non-status Indian from British Columbia, reached out to CBC after the new U of S policy was announced.
He said while he agrees that there’s a problem with “pretend Indians,” this new policy has a blind spot.
“What about me?” he asked.
Mortensen says while he is an Indigenous person, he doesn’t have a community: According to his birth certificate, he was born of Indian and Czechoslovakian ancestry.
He says his mother was Blackfoot and his father was Cree. But Mortensen didn’t know his father, and his mother was disconnected from her roots.
“I can point to a territory but I can’t point to a community,” Mortensen said.
Jaime says the university is setting up a standing committee of Indigenous people to help work through difficult situations like this. She says there could also be challenges when Indigenous people come here from other countries so the committee will have to reflect on that as well.
She says as far as she knows, the U of S is the first university in the country to approve a policy on Indigenous identity. She hopes that it can serve as a template for others.
“It is creating a systemic change that over time will help everyone,” she said.