Written by Lauren Breen
Edited by: Madeleine Hamilton
Disclaimer* The author of this article recognizes the diverse ways in which Indigenous identity is understood and embraced, acknowledging that the journey of connecting with one’s Indigeneity is unique for each individual. It is important to note that the term “Indian” is used here strictly in legal contexts. The primary focus of this article is on individuals who falsely claim Indigenous ancestry with the intent of personal gain or exploitation. The intention is not to oversimplify the rich tapestry of Indigenous identities but to address specific instances of misrepresentation.
In the mosaic of Canada’s cultural tapestry, the issue of Pretendians—individuals falsely claiming Indigenous heritage—emerges as a complex and contentious facet. Recently, headlines and investigations into false claims of Indigeneity are becoming more common; from Juno award winner and musician Buffy Saint-Marie to lawyer and former Judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the list goes on. As the term gains prominence, so does the need to unravel the motives, historical nuances, and societal implications woven into this controversial narrative. This article aims to navigate the labyrinth of Pretendians in Canada, delving into the historical backdrop and contemporary challenges faced by Indigenous communities in the face of this identity dilemma.
To comprehend the phenomenon of Pretendians in Canada, one must navigate the intricate historical landscape marked by colonization and the imposition of the Indian Act. The colonial legacy, fraught with cultural erasure and forced assimilation, led to a disconnection between Indigenous individuals and their ancestral roots. The Indian Act, implemented in 1876, further entrenched a paternalistic government approach, attempting to define who qualified as “Indian.” This legislation, characterized by inhumane policies such as residential schools, forced relocations, and cultural suppression, intensified the struggle forced upon Indigenous Canadians, exacerbating the already challenging path to cultural preservation and self-determination. Examining the Indian Act’s harsh impact reveals the immoral nature of the Pretendians phenomenon, exposing broader systemic injustices against Indigenous communities.
Overflowing with sexism, this legislation was also gendered in its implementation. That is, it was justified by the doctrine of coverture, which was used to prevent women from being recognized as legal persons and rather subordinate to their spouses. For over a hundred years, the only people who could apply for status were 1. An Indian Male 2. Children of an Indian Male; and 3. A woman married to an Indian Male. Thus, if an Indigenous woman married a non-Indigenous man, her initial status was removed. Although the passing of Bill C-31 in 1985 allowed Indigenous women to regain their status and keep it upon marriage, it prevented status from being transferred to their children, unlike Indigenous men. Such gender inequities still echo today.
The glaring reality of this legislative framework, marred by deeply oppressive policies, underscores its profoundly detrimental impact. Within Indigenous communities, it has not only sown seeds of confusion, but also significantly exacerbated the contemporary challenges of authenticating Indigenous identity, fostering the troubling emergence of Pretendians.
Moving forward, the motivations driving individuals to falsely claim Indigenous identity in Canada are as diverse as the country itself. Indigenous comedian and playwright Hayden Taylor, who is very familiar with the term Pretendians, asserts that these individuals can be drawn by, but not limited to, three main things: belonging, financial benefits, and family lore.
Firstly, he states that some people just want to feel a part of a group, a part of a culture that is alluring to them. This motivation in particular perpetuates cultural appropriation; a troubling trend that sees Pretendians appropriating sacred practices without understanding their cultural significance.
On the flip side, some individuals manipulate Indigenous identity for personal gain, capitalizing on exclusive financial opportunities reserved for Indigenous communities. These range from securing educational bursaries to attaining elevated positions in academia, organizations, and corporations. The case of the Gill sisters serves as a poignant illustration of such opportunism. In September 2023, twins Amira and Nadia, along with their mother, Karima Manji, faced charges of fraud over $5000 for exploiting Inuit beneficiary status as adopted Inuit children. As their trial unfolds, scheduled for a court appearance in early December, these instances not only betray the essence of Indigenous identity but also cast a shadow on initiatives designed to empower Indigenous communities. This underscores the urgent need for vigilance and accountability in protecting resources dedicated to the genuine upliftment of Indigenous individuals and communities.
Lastly, the most prevalent motivation, as identified by Taylor, often stems from family lore. Assertions of Indigenous ancestry, especially through ties to great-grandparents, provide individuals with a seemingly valid basis to adopt and assert their Indigenous identities without delving into deeper research. However, as scholars Tuck and Yang argue, laying claim to distant ancestry can be seen as a settler move to innocence, a tactic wherein individuals, by adopting an Indigenous identity, attempt to distance themselves from guilt and deflect their settler identity.
Regardless of the motivation, be it rooted in ignorance or opportunism, the repercussions of Pretendian claims reverberate through Indigenous communities, profoundly affecting the very essence of their existence. Authentic voices are diluted as impostors commandeer spaces meant for genuine Indigenous representation. The appropriation of sacred practices adds insult to injury, eroding the sanctity of cultural heritage. Beyond the cultural realm, misrepresentation may lead to the misallocation of resources intended for Indigenous communities, exacerbating existing socio-economic disparities. The presence of Pretendians thus not only distorts perceptions but also threatens the well-being and cohesion of Indigenous societies.
To address the challenges posed by false claims of Indigenous identity, scholar and Métis Lawyer Jean Teillet emphasizes the necessity of moving beyond self-identification. In her University of Saskatchewan report, Teillet advocates for assessing identity through elements such as “citizenship, relationship, and kinship,” asserting that these factors speak to who claims a person rather than who the person claims. She suggests that employers and institutions should prioritize markers of identity, such as a name or clan, responsibilities, the ability to give gifts, and accountability.
Teillet, alongside other Indigenous experts consulted for her report, also supports the validation of identity through traditional means, emphasizing the importance of having someone alive in the Indigenous community who is aware of the claimant’s family. Notably, these recommendations are not intended to exclude individuals who have been displaced by government actions, as explicitly stated in the report: “Those who are seeking to reconnect, for example, due to being part of the Sixties Scoop, should not be penalized because their Indigenous identity is of recent vintage.”
In unraveling the layers of Pretendians in Canada, it becomes evident that the issue extends far beyond mere individual deception. It is a manifestation of historical injustices, cultural appropriation, and systemic challenges faced by Indigenous communities. Addressing Pretendian claims necessitates a nuanced approach that acknowledges the historical context, scrutinizes motivations, and seeks to alleviate the burdens placed on authentic Indigenous individuals. As Canada grapples with the complexities of identity, fostering understanding and respect becomes paramount in preserving the integrity of Indigenous cultures and narratives.
Eyesplash. (2013) Aboriginal carving for the truth and reconciliation commission [Photograph] Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/eyesplash/9967016726/in/photostream/
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