A Halifax academic is questioning the claims of Indigenous identity by several federal election candidates.
Darryl Leroux, an associate professor of social justice and communities studies at Saint Mary’s University, says at least four federal candidates from the Liberal, Conservative and Green parties have made dubious claims of Indigenous identity.
Leroux, who recently published a book called Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, said all four claims seem to cling to the largely discredited idea that having one Indigenous ancestor somewhere in the past can bestow someone with an Indigenous identity.
“This idea that all you need is a long-ago blood connection — there is a consensus in Indigenous studies, as theorized and thought through by Indigenous scholars, that this is not acceptable,” said Leroux.
“It actually is an attack against Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty.”
Leroux singled out Marc Serré, an incumbent MP and candidate for the Liberal Party in the Nickel Belt riding in Ontario; George Canyon, a Conservative candidate for Central Nova in Nova Scotia; and Green Party candidates Amanda Kistindey, running in the Ontario riding of Don Valley West, and Jocelyn Rioux, who is running in the Quebec riding of Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques.
Serré, who was co-chair of the Liberal Indigenous caucus as an MP, recently deleted a section on his online candidate biography stating he was a “citizen of the Mattawa/North Bay Algonquin First Nation and Métis of Ontario.” It remains in his biography on the web page for the Liberal Indigenous caucus.
The Mattawa/North Bay Algonquin First Nation is not an Indian Act band or a self-governing First Nation with a modern treaty. It is an entity created as part of the controversial Algonquins of Ontario land claim that has been criticized by Algonquin First Nations in Quebec who question its legitimacy.
Serré is on a voters’ list drafted in 2015 to determine who could vote for the ratification of an agreement-in-principle. According to the document, his root ancestor is Marie Mitewamewkwe.
Also known as Marie Miteouamigoukoue and Marie Miteouamegoukwe, Mitewamewkwe is believed to be an Algonquin woman born circa 1631, according to Leroux’s book. She died in Trois-Rivières, Que., on Jan. 8, 1699.
“[Mitewamewkwe] is likely the second-most well-known Indigenous ancestor in French-descendant genealogical circles today,” wrote Leroux in his book.
She is cited as a root ancestor for people claiming to be Métis in Quebec, Algonquin in Ontario and Abenaki in New Hampshire, he wrote.
Serré told CBC News that he has Algonquin ancestry through four lines on his father’s side and and at least one on his mother’s side, but admits only one link is documented and the rest are part of family lore.
“The Catholic Church literally erased their past in the late 1850s and this is well documented,” said Serré. “The Catholic Church would take kids from the reserves and so my two great-great-grandmothers were taken away.”
Serré said his paternal great-great-grandmother was a woman named Marie Metamakin (Serré’s spelling) who was a Weskarini Algonquin born in Trois Rivières, Que.
Serré said he and his family have always felt Indigenous at their core.
“Growing up we considered ourselves more on the Métis side … my grandfather’s brothers and sisters lived off the land … and clearly if you look at pictures, you see a lot of resemblance to my great-great-grandmother,” said Serré.
“All my ancestry on all sides lived very poor, lived off the land.”
Serré said the documented connection runs through his father, Gaetan Serré, his father’s mother, Jeanne Aubin, and her mother, Marie Victoire Octavi Trudel. Serré said Trudel’s mother was Marie Metamakin.
CBC News took Serré’s lineage to independent Montreal-based genealogical researcher Dominique Ritchot. Richot followed the line and found that Trudel’s mother was a woman named Josaphine Barette, whose parents were Vital Barette and Marcelline Lareau, who were married on Feb. 9, 1858, in Napierville, Que.
CBC News approached Serré with Ritchot’s findings last week. He responded Tuesday with a short statement.
“I am proud of my heritage as a citizen of the Algonquin First Nation in Mattawa-North Bay,” the statement said.
The Liberal Party deferred questions to Serré.
The Acadian-Métis controversy
In a now-deleted section of Amanda Kistindey’s profile on the Green Party’s website, she identified as an Acadian-Métis with “strong ancestral heritage” which has shaped her advocacy.
Leroux said her claim as Acadian-Métis also likely hinges on a more than three-century-old ancestor. Acadian-Métis claims first surfaced in 1999 and in a 2001 court case, he said.
“It’s an identity appropriation … this is very insidious because it’s much harder to call out,” he said. “It’s wrong because those same individuals are using this anti-colonial or de-colonial language to assert these identities.”
In an email to CBC News, Kistindey said that while she’s never grown up on reserve or “even really been immersed in the culture,” she is proud of her ancestral heritage.
While Kistindey did not respond to followup questions, the Green Party said in a statement it “does not verify the background of our candidates who self-identify as Indigenous.”
The statement said the party believes individual Indigenous nations and communities should have the authority to decide who is Indigenous, “not Ottawa.”
‘An attack on sovereignty’
According to Leroux, one of the most dangerous manifestations of what he terms “identity appropriation” arises when groups form and claim some type of Indigenous ancestry in an effort to stop real Indigenous communities from asserting their rights.
“A number of white people used ancestors in the past to stop a territorial claim,” said Leroux. “To me, it’s always an attack on sovereignty.”
Leroux devotes a chapter in his book to Quebec’s Métis Nation of the Rising Sun. According to Leroux, it’s the largest self-identifying Métis organization in the province, counting between 16,000 and 20,000 people as members.
Leroux writes in his book that the Rising Sun group sprouted from opposition in 2006 to an agreement between the Mi’kmaq community of Gesgapegiag and the Quebec government over territorial hunting and fishing rights in the Gaspé region.
The group has also looked to the Quebec courts for recognition as a constitutional rights-bearing Métis community to hunt and fish. In August, the Supreme Court of Canada denied their case’s application to leave for appeal.
Green Party candidate Jocelyn Rioux says on his candidate profile that he is the “Aboriginal Chief for the Environment” for the Rising Sun band council.
Rioux told CBC News via email that on his mother’s side of the family, his ancestors are Huron-Wendat from Wendake, Que.
“I asked for a more accurate genealogy with the birth and marriage certificates. In my family, I’ve never asked myself whether I’m Indigenous, any more than African, Chinese or whatever,” he said.
When asked why he identifies as Métis rather than Huron-Wendat, he said it’s because his family is still searching for his father’s ancestry and that his mother’s lineage isn’t recognized under the Indian Act.
“It’s a form of racism,” said Rioux. “But our nation did detailed genealogy studies and acknowledged many of our members could be recognized as First Nations.”
As for Leroux’s criticism, Rioux copied and pasted a section of the Métis Nation of the Rising Sun’s website on their history that states the presence of Métis in the Gaspésie dates back to 1760.
“I remember when I was young being tormented by other children for being Indigenous, and now it’s adults who deny our identity. I imagine that the genocide continues to work in silence and true reconciliation is not here,” he said.
Eastern Métis or Mi’kmaq?
In an interview with CBC Nova Scotia earlier this month, Conservative candidate George Canyon said he identified as a member of the Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation.
When CBC Indigenous contacted the Conservative Party about Canyon’s Indigenous identity, it sent a statement that said Canyon was “proud of his Mi’kmaq heritage, but is not status.”
Leroux said the Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation is “perhaps the most fraudulent Acadian-Métis organization” and that Canyon is falsely claiming to be Indigenous.
Neither the Eastern Woodlands Métis Nation nor the Métis Nation of the Rising Sun is recognized by the Métis National Council (MNC).
Last year, the MNC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs to educate the public about the “legitimate Métis Nation and Mi’kmaq issues.”
Will Goodon, housing minister for Manitoba Métis Federation, said unless a candidate has roots to the Métis Nation in Western Canada, they are not Métis.
“There is only one Métis Nation,” he said. “It’s absolutely clear, cut and dry. The Acadian people are Acadian people and they’re not Métis. And if your relations are Mi’kmaq, why don’t you want to be Mi’kmaq?”
It’s a growing problem that people think having a mixture of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry makes a person Métis, he said.
“It’s not a catch-all phrase for people who have some Indigenous ancestry going back five, 10, 12 generations,” said Goodon. “They can be who they are, but they’re not us.”