Concern over Indigenous identity fraud heightened by government definitions: minister

concern over indigenous identity fraud heightened by government definitions: minister

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree speaks in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, June 3, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

OTTAWA — The Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations says a lot of talk about the issue of so-called Indigenous identity fraud is based around apprehensions people have about the government defining who is — and who isn't — a rights-holder.

"The notion of Indigenous identity is obviously very complicated and layered with many centuries of colonialism," Gary Anandasangaree said in an interview Thursday.

"It really isn't the role of the federal government to define what an Indigenous person is, and who is not."

But as the recognition of Indigenous rights often comes from the federal government, he and Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu have been increasingly under pressure from all three federally recognized groups of Indigenous Peoples — First Nations, Inuit and Métis — to either butt out of the discussion, or do more to ensure their rights are respected.

"Any relationship needs constant work and conversations," said Anandasangaree. "Sometimes, you know, we agree to disagree."

The topic of identity fraud came to a head last fall with a controversial bill in the House of Commons that sought to recognize Métis governments in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

First Nations and the Manitoba Métis Federation staunchly oppose the bill, citing concerns with the Métis Nation of Ontario, while the federal government held firm it was required by court cases and the Constitution itself. Métis Nation—Saskatchewan pulled its support earlier this year.

The Métis Nation of Ontario, meanwhile, had its leaders publicly state that members were seeing the real-life impacts of Indigenous identity fraud allegations on the playgrounds at school, in their workplaces and online.

While the bill largely sits in limbo, the Manitoba Métis Federation and the Chiefs of Ontario held a two-day summit where they criticized the federal government for lending the Métis Nation of Ontario any credibility.

Hajdu said in an interview she has heard first-hand from First Nations chiefs in her riding that they were concerned about the legislation, adding "it really kick-started a lot of conversations about who is Métis, what are Métis rights."

"I try to I understand why there's such an anxiety among community members right now" about Indigenous identity, Hajdu said.

"There are, for the first time — maybe in the history of this country — there are new opportunities as a result of being Indigenous that didn't exist in previous governments."

Further east, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Innu Nation have raised concerns about the NunatuKavut Community Council, whom they accuse of overstepping in their efforts to be recognized as an Indigenous People, while they, too, defend their histories.

The federal government's involvement in the issue also comes at a time when many people are seized by the notion of Indigenous identity fraud at an individual level, including via the high-profile CBC News investigation into Buffy Sainte-Marie's claims to Cree lineage. There are also a number of unrelated court cases underway over specific people.

Anandasangaree said recognizing Indigenous rights is "very difficult," but decisions need to be made over the next few years, including about the recognition of Métis.

"We continuously evaluate how we do things, and we have often not got it right," Anandasangaree said of how the efforts to recognize Métis governments have gone this sitting.

"In retrospect, we probably should have done this separately and had a separate path for each of the nations."

But he noted the three groups asked for the government to put forward one bill, instead of separate legislation for each nation.

There are hundreds of groups who claim Indigenous identities, and the government must decide which ones it wants to work with.

When it comes to making that decision, Anandasangaree said it always comes back to Section 35 of the Constitution and the onus of those groups to establish they hold those rights through a very "arduous process" — one that comes without predefined outcomes.

"We have to do the due diligence and, at some point, make a decision based on historical context and a range of factors that come from the Department of Justice, as well as our department."

The NunatuKavut Community Council, for example, has not met that threshold yet, he said.

First Nations, meanwhile, have raised concerns this sitting about the Indian Act and the way their membership is structured compared to groups like the Métis Nation of Ontario and the NunatuKavut Community Council who are seeking recognition from the federal government.

A major challenge is that the Indian Act still defines who is First Nations, leaving many people disenfranchised by what he called "arbitrary cutoffs."

The federal government winds up acting as the arbiter of who is and who isn't First Nations under the Indian Act, with generational cutoffs and strict criteria that define who is a member of a community. At the same time, other Indigenous groups like the Métis are able to determine for themselves who is welcome in their spaces.

"The Indian Act — and I've said it many times — is a deeply flawed and racist piece of legislation," said Anandasangaree.

"The notion of citizenship should not be based on a Canadian definition. It should be based on what the nation believes, and based on their values and their concept of citizenship."

Beyond the recognition of rights, the government is also grappling with its Indigenous procurement strategy, after the Indigenous Business Directory was brought into question during the evolving ArriveCan saga.

That list provides the federal government with names of Indigenous businesses they could consider using to meet their Indigenous procurement target, which states a minimum five per cent of the total value of contracts should be held by Indigenous businesses. But some have complained there are businesses on the list that shouldn't be included.

Consultations about which group should take over and monitor the list are ongoing, said Hajdu. She noted there is disagreement about which businesses should be listed, and about which group should be the "keeper" of the list.

But for Hajdu, the entire conversation around Indigenous identity goes beyond the individual, business or community level.

"All of this is, I think, an indication of a country grappling with its colonial past and a path forward where people are respected," said Hajdu.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2024.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

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