As a second-generation residential school survivor, adopted out shortly after birth in the Sixties Scoop, I am one of many who have spent my life dealing with abandonment, rejection, confusion and trauma. And thanks to decades of unjust government policies, present-day Indigenous peoples have been left to pick up the pieces of our lost languages, cultures, families and traditions. It insults me, then, to see that our collective pain is being used for profit.
The case of the “pretendian” — a person who falsely claims Indigenous heritage — has made national news over the last few years. High-profile race-shifters include novelist Joseph Boyden, actor and filmmaker Michelle Latimer, health expert Carrie Bourassa and American artist Gina Adams. Last October, professor and former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was the subject of a CBC investigation that seemed to debunk her claims of Cree ancestry. Almost three months later, she was no longer employed by the University of British Columbia. The school did not say why.
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The standing of those exposed shows the possibilities of being a pretendian: career opportunities, grants, awards, esteem.
What’s more, Indigenous people have trusted these individuals. We elevated them because they worked hard and said the right things. They walked like us, talked like us and prayed like us. They saw us for who we are: beautiful, wise and with a deep connection to the land and the water.
Unfortunately, seemingly no one checked on their claims of Indigeneity until recently. The idea that people might steal an identity was out of the question.
Of course, these revelations have left many of us shaken and outraged — to be used as a prop in someone’s career ambitions is a repugnant violation. After Adams’s resignation from the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, the school declared that it will take on an Indigenous-led external review to “make recommendations for how we assess identity in a culturally appropriate way when hiring for positions designated for Indigenous candidates.” Better late than never, I suppose.
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Nowadays, I understand who I am, where I come from and who my biological family is, all while having the love of my adoptive family. But it took support to get here. Part of my healing includes people who have given me various opportunities and encouraged me to pursue that good life. Reconnection is a critical journey, and I have been fortunate to discover resources that aim to improve my well-being.
I would never wish the darkness of addiction, depression and suicidal ideation upon anyone. I feel for members of the Sixties Scoop who have had their lives upended, only to watch, years later, as unscrupulous impostors steal opportunities designed to help actual Indigenous people achieve their potential.
Pretendians do not deserve to tell our stories or speak on our behalf. They don’t deserve to be protected by institutional elites who defend their fraud, either.
Mike Alexander is an Anishinaabe writer and artist from Swan Lake First Nation in Manitoba, now living in Vancouver.
This piece first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2023 issue with the title “Identity theft.”
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