Queen’s University launches process to verify native identity requirements

Dr. Carrie Bourassa.Dave Stobbe / University of Saskatchewan

Queen’s University launches consultations on how to assess indigenous identity requirements when hiring, a first step in establishing what could be a national model for universities struggling to deal with allegations of identity fraud among their faculties.

Queen’s in Kingston said it realized this year that it had not applied the necessary rigor to issues of identity in recruitment and other processes, such as scholarships, where affiliation with an indigenous community may be a factor.

Kanonhysonne Janice Hill, Associate Vice President of Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation, said universities across Canada are asking themselves how to establish a fair and consistent process to ensure that positions and awards intended for indigenous faculties, staff and students clean actually goes to indigenous peoples.

“Across the post-secondary sector and in many other sectors of our country, there have been allegations of fraudulent native identity,” Prof Hill said. “Many initiatives have been launched for the benefit of indigenous peoples. And so we need to make sure that the people these programs are intended for are actually the recipients.”

The University of Saskatchewan is embroiled in controversy after a CBC study cast doubt on the claims of native identity made by one of its most prominent members of the faculty, Carrie Bourassa.

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Prof. Bourassa was put on indefinite leave without pay Monday from his position as scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health. She was also suspended and put on paid leave by the University of Saskatchewan, where she has a job in the College of Medicine as a professor of public health and epidemiology. The university said it had serious concerns about some of the information provided by Prof. Bourassa in interviews over the past week, and said it had launched an investigation.

Prof. Bourassa declined a request for an interview Tuesday, saying her PR team would be contacted in the future.

The University of Saskatchewan provost Airini, which uses one name, said the university takes the allegations made and the potential harm caused seriously, which is why it has launched an investigation. Prof. Bourassa will not be able to continue his scientific work while the investigation is ongoing, said Dr. Airini.

Dr. Airini said the university recognizes that self-identification, a kind of system of honor, is no longer sufficient to determine the identity of natives. She said the university reserves the right to consult with indigenous communities and require evidence when applying for a position at an indigenous faculty.

“What’s happening in the post-secondary sector is a living issue for any organization that wants to increase indigenous representation,” said Dr. Airini, who himself is a native scholar. “We need universities to have these courageous discussions, and we need universities to be open to them.”

Winona Wheeler, a professor of indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, said the original faculty has called on the university to adopt a formal process for assessing identity requirements. She said a council of native academics and seniors could handle the task. There are complications in some cases, as not all indigenous peoples have formal status due to a number of factors, including adoption and family separation, but that is understood, she said.

“Universities are afraid to do that kind of thing because they are afraid of violating human rights and afraid of being sued. But that’s the way it should be done. There have to be criteria in place,” said Prof. Wheeler “The most important thing is that you are accepted and belong to a community and that you can trace your lineage to that community.”

Last June, Queen’s responded to a dossier circulated online that cast doubt on the original identities of several people affiliated with the school, some of them members of the faculty of education.

At the time, the Chancellor of Queen’s, former Senator and President of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Murray Sinclair, said it was clear that the process that is in place at most universities to establish native identity is inadequate.

Queen’s is now launching a consultation process that will seek advice from indigenous faculties, staff and students on how to build a system that will evaluate identity requirements.

“We have not discovered any existing models that are true and tested,” said Prof. Hill. “I get requests from other institutions to share what we find out because everyone is struggling with the same issues right now.”

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