The University of Manitoba is reviewing how it collects self-identification data for jobs and scholarships created specifically for people who are First Nations, Métis or Inuit, owing to concerns about false Indigeneity claims.
Manitoba’s largest post-secondary institute is among a group of Canadian schools that have recently announced plans to review their respective practices, following a series of controversies that have made headlines this year.
Most recently, the University of Saskatchewan placed a high-profile health researcher on unpaid leave after CBC published an investigation showing there was no evidence to back up her identity claims.
"If we’re not asking people to show proof of Indigenous identity, are we then allowing loopholes that minimize opportunities for equity? I think we have a responsibility to look very seriously at that question," said Catherine Cook, vice-president (Indigenous) at the U of M.
Cook, who is Métis, indicated no particular local incident prompted the work. A review will address longtime worries about an honour-based system being insufficient and recent events at other institutions, she said.
Students typically have to simply check a box self-declaring their status when they apply to school for a particular program and to be considered for a university scholarship.
Prospective instructors and current academics seeking new titles, such as Indigenous scholar, are encouraged to outline their identity in their cover letter. Community letters of support and requests for status cards, be it an Indian status card, Manitoba Métis Federation card or Inuit identifier, may also be presented.
Native studies professor Emma LaRocque said she has long been troubled by U of M using self-declaration as the main —and sometimes, only — criterion for identity claims.
In an email, LaRocque, who identifies as a Cree-speaking Métis educator originally from northeastern Alberta, said voluntary disclosure as Métis is "particularly disturbing" to people of Red River historical ancestry.
"Just because one may be able to claim some distant (First Nation) or Métis individual many generations back as a relative (biologically speaking) does not make one a Métis. Being half white and half First Nation also does not make one a Métis. Mixed race by itself is not a sufficient criteria for Métisness. Métis is about being able to trace a long Métis lineage that goes back to the early fur trading times," wrote LaRocque.
"Today, Métis people know who they are within a family, community and cultural context. It is about land and language. And lifestyle. It is much more than just self-declaration."
U of M is creating a working group that will be led by knowledge-keepers. In the new year, the school will begin seeking input on applicant verification processes around hiring for Indigenous-specific teaching and research positions, student admittance to faculties based on reserved seats and specific award and funding applications.
Cook said the goal is to standardize and strengthen protocols by working with Indigenous partners and communities of all kinds to create a system that relies more on vocal community support of an applicant’s identity.
U of M has one of the largest Indigenous student populations in the country, with upwards of 2,600 learners who self-declare their status annually — or, approximately eight per cent of students.
"There’s quite a few people in my personal life who claim to be Métis or First Nation to reap the benefits (of specific scholarships and reserved faculty seats) without joining the community, so to speak," said Taylor Catcheway, a member of the U of M Indigenous Students’ Association, who is Ojibwe from Pine Creek First Nation in northwestern Manitoba.
Catcheway said such identity theft is particularly frustrating because many people who are Indigenous face barriers to connecting with their culture and proving their identity due to displacement from their communities as a result of the child-welfare system and ’60s Scoop.
Identity fraud creates distrust both in Indigenous communities and among the non-Indigenous population, she added.
Raven Morrisseau, co-president of the association, echoed those sentiments.
"It’s hard to come up with a system that’s going to equally help all people because there are so many barriers placed on Indigenous people that could limit acquiring documentation," said Morrisseau, who is Cree and Métis, from Misipawistik Cree Nation in northwestern Manitoba.
Both students are in agreement that the U of M may have to consider assessing identification on a case-by-case basis if it wants to improve its system and ensure there is no fraud.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.