Friday, November 05, 2021

Indigenous Identity Fraud: Too much weights reprise

The recent exposure of Dr. Carrie Bourassa as having Russian-Czech-Polish ancestry and not the Metis-Tlingit-Anishinaabe genealogy she has persistently claimed for two decades has thrown Indigenous academia into turmoil.

This latest case of identity fraud in academia comes close to home for me. The University of Saskatchewan has been my professional residence since 2017. Bourassa was much feted by the University, showered with awards and funding, and assumed a level of seniority, power and influence over significant federal investment in Indigenous health research. (Key in this is the $100m plus for the Network Environments for Indigenous Health Research; I am a Co-PI in the Saskatchewan NEIHR and executive director of the NEIHR National Coordinating Centre). 

There have been accusations of other fraudsters at other Canadian universities, notably Queens. But Bourassa's case has torched a fire of anger and grief that caught the institution flat footed. Fanned by social media - as is the modern way - people leapt to deride universities processes that have seen Indigenous positions given to non-Indigenous people. Many of these have simply applied for a position that did not specifically require an Indigenous appointment; others, like Bourassa, have fabricated genealogies and experiences that pass into cliché and perverse one upmanship of Indigenous trauma.

Dean of the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. Professor Chris Anderson, has penned a thoughtful and insightful op-ed outlining the issues and ways forward. He identifies two characteristics to Indigenous identity claims in academia: 

"First, they are based primarily on self-identification that sits somewhere on a spectrum from complete dishonesty, to distant archival ancestors, to the family lore of a dark-skinned or high cheek-boned great/grandparent. Second, they involve no ongoing extended familial connection to an Indigenous community."      

The Bourassa Incident will reverberate through academia for some time yet. But the worse impacts will be on the very Indigenous communities, including Indigenous grad students, that Bourassa aped and in doing so, mocked. I met with Carrie several times, including pre-covid, when I could observe her up close and in vivo or should that be in vitro. The overwhelming impression was one of performance, an OTT display of "Indiginess". Draped in a Metis sash, big earrings, often tremulously holding an eagle feather, Carrie seemed as if she was play-acting, a life where everyday was Halloween. Dr. Tracy Bear eviscerates this dress-up as that of a "life-sucking vampire", dismissing accusations that it is a witch hunt as witches never enjoyed the power or wealth of Bourassa. 

There's a lot of healing to be done. I do expect efforts to "follow the money" and shine some sunshine on what are too often opaque processes of appointment and funding. And of course we must have a real engagement with Indigenous communities, in Saskatchewan, across the country called Canada, and indeed the international Indigenous world.

Some readings:
Tuck and Yang (2012): Decolonization is not a metaphor.

Also Albert Memmi on scientific racism. 

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