It seems the coolest “in thing” to do nowadays is to claim First Nation status. Validity seems unimportant . . . until caught, that is.

Hundreds of Indigenous scholars, administrators, students and elders from across Canada met virtually last year, for example, to talk about how to prevent people who falsely claim they are Indigenous from taking benefits that aren’t intended for them. 

The National Forum on Indigenous Identity was organized by First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) in partnership with the newly formed National Indigenous University Senior Leaders’ Association (NIUSLA). 

The event was announced last year after a CBC investigation into Carrie Bourassa, who at the time was Canada’s leading Indigenous health scientist, found she had falsely claimed to be Indigenous.

Jacqueline Ottmann, the president of FNUniv and co-chair of NIUSLA, said it is time for Indigenous people across the country to address this issue together. 

She said while there have been pretenders around for years, the problem is getting worse because of a growing number of scholarships, grants and jobs intended specifically for Indigenous people. 

“With the increase of these opportunities, it seems there has been an increase of people who are claiming Indigeneity,” said Ottmann. 

Early this year, retired senator Lillian Dyck said she was “stunned” to see reports questioning the Indigenous heritage of former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, whose career she had celebrated.

Dyck, who is Cree and Chinese Canadian, said in an interview she thought “hallelujah” as Turpel-Lafond became Saskatchewan’s first Indigenous female judge in 1998.

It was “wonderful” to know Turpel-Lafond had overcome the numerous challenges Indigenous women disproportionately face in their personal lives and careers, said the professor emeritus in psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan.

“And then I found out, it was all a facade.”

Dyck said a CBC investigation convinced her that Turpel-Lafond lied about being Indigenous, specifically Cree, causing real harm by exploiting the identity of Indigenous women, of whom many in Canada are underserved and vulnerable.

“Canadians know now (Indigenous women) are more likely to face violence, more likely to be murdered, made missing, and she’s used that identity to enhance her curriculum vitae. And to me, that was like the lowest thing you could do.”

The appropriation of Indigenous identity by so-called “pretendians” deprives Indigenous people of jobs and opportunities to make change for the better, Dyck said, adding that it also affects future generations of Indigenous children.

In addition to the CBC investigation, Dyck said Turpel-Lafond’s “evasion” in response to questions about her heritage have contributed to Dyck’s conclusion that she is not Indigenous, with status recognized by the federal government.

“It would have been so easy for her to prove her identity. If she’s claiming to be a treaty Cree Indian, all she had to do was pull out her treaty card.”

Along with revoking Turpel-Lafond’s honorary degrees, Dyck said she wants to see the universities take a stand, stating publicly that it is unacceptable to pretend to be Indigenous, and there should be consequences, such as termination.

Now, another senior academic has stepped into it.

Amid scrutiny about her claims to Indigenous ancestry, the president of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador apologized Monday for the hurt she may have caused by invoking Mi’kmaq heritage.

Vianne Timmons said she will take temporary leave as the school’s board of regents considers its next steps through an Indigenous-led roundtable.

The university says, in fact, that  Timmons is already on a six-week voluntary paid leave of absence.


  • Mark Bonokoski

    Mark Bonokoski is a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame and has been published by a number of outlets – including the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s and Readers’ Digest.