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Manitoba senator calls for study, awareness around damaging effects of false Indigenous identity claims

Sen. Mary Jane McCallum says Indigenous identity fraud is a damaging but often unseen crime that inflicts serious harm on Indigenous women.

The Cree woman from Manitoba is calling for a Senate committee to study the phenomenon and the damage it causes.

“People don’t really look at identity theft,” she said in an interview from her Parliament Hill office. “It’s almost like an invisible crime.”

It is also, she said, yet another fight Indigenous women have to wage, and she is tired of having to always keep fighting.

Her call for a deeper look follows a series of high-profile cases in recent years of academics and those in the arts whose claims of Indigenous identity have been debunked.

A middle-aged woman with short blond hair and glasses.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is a Canadian lawyer, judge and legislative advocate for children’s rights. A CBC News investigation recently shed light on her questionable Indigenous identity claim. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Most recently, a CBC News investigation shed light on the questionable Indigenous identity claims of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a respected scholar and longtime advocate on Indigenous rights.

A separate investigation, also by CBC News, led to Carrie Bourassa, a prominent health researcher, being placed on leave by the University of Saskatchewan after her claim of Métis heritage appeared dubious.

Back in 2017, the Indigenous ancestry claims of novelist Joseph Boyden were thrown into serious question following an investigation by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

McCallum said Thursday when identity theft happens inside a university, it is often other Indigenous academics — namely women — who are left to call it out. Students are also affected, and often left with anger and a sense of violation.

manitoba senator calls for study awareness around damaging effects of false indigenous identity claims 1
In this 2019 TEDx talk in Saskatoon, Carrie Bourassa claimed publicly that she is Métis and Anishnaabe and has suffered the effects of racism. A 2022 CBC News investigation cast doubt on that claim. (YouTube)

Reflecting on her own life, the senator says she recalls looking up to her father as a model and compares that sense of admiration to the type pupils have toward their academic mentors.

“Now to find that, ‘Well, they’re not even Indigenous,’ like, what does that do to a person?”

McCallum believes not enough Canadians realize the harm done to others by those who commit Indigenous identity fraud, which she says is made even worse by the fact there are those still fighting for recognition of Indigenous identity under the Indian Act.

Again, the senator reflects on her own life. McCallum says because her husband is non-Indigenous and her daughter was born after 1985, under the system her 10-month old grandson will not be considered status.

So that’s another fight she needs to have.

“It’s at the core of womanhood, that you fight for your community, you fight for your people,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion and eyes filled with tears.

“It’s so tiring and it’s still going on.”

McCallum says she doesn’t understand what would motivate someone to pretend to have a heritage other than their own.

And having grown up attending residential school for 11 years and experiencing society at a time when many hid their Indigenous identity, she also wonders when being Indigenous started to become acceptable.

“There will always be those people that look into the gaps and start to use Indigeneity as a source of power.”

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