As the first Indigenous person ever appointed to Montreal’s City Council, Marie-Josee Parent was a leader in reconciliation. Until she wasn’t.
Speaking out at a council meeting held Tuesday, Parent announced she would step down from her role as the city’s Reconciliation Advisor after an independent researcher blew the whistle on Parent’s identity politics.
She was appointed to her role in 2017, to great fanfare, but had previously been very involved with the Indigenous community; along with her sister, she started DestiNATIONS – an organization working to support the “creation, promotion, production, and reconstruction of Indigenous culture,” according to their website.
Parent also had an integral role in the creation of Montreal’s first-ever “Reconciliation Strategy,” reportedly set for public release in February 2020.
“Because I understand some people have expressed an uneasiness with the way I present myself publicly, I’ve chosen to pursue this [reclamation] process privately,” Parent said.
“Andre-Yanne and I, we introduce ourselves as Mi’kmaq-Acadian,” she explained. “Our feeling of belonging to the Mi’kmaq Nation comes from our family’s oral tradition that recounts our affiliations with that nation in different moments in our history.”
Parent maintained that her family tree was never formally completed.
Hoping to confirm indigeneity on Parent’s paternal side, Mohawk-Innu historian Eric Pouliot-Thisdale pored over census and parish records, bolstered by murmurings about the sisters’ heritage among the “intimate” urban Indigenous community.
He finally turned up a potential lead from the late 1600s – Marianne Cormier, a woman cited to be from “unknown aboriginal origins” – an “absolute speculation,” according to Pouliot-Thisdale.
Cormier, it turns out, was actually from France. A second potential lead uncovered by a second genealogist – a maternal relative from 17th century records – is referred to once as an “unnamed Indian,” but never mentioned again.
Despite the undeniable positive contributions made by the Parent sisters, it’s not enough to base a modern day claim on, according to those who undertook the research.
“Everyone wants to find a native ancestor feel less culprit to be part of Canada,” he explains. “So this way you know, like ‘oh I get a native ancestor, phew! It’s my land and I can feel good with the natives and stuff.’ Actually, it’s around one per cent.”
While Parent conceded in her address to city council that identity questions are drawn out and complicated, researchers like Darryl Leroux say this story reflects a social phenomenon called race-shifting, or ‘self-indigenization,’ which is on the rise in Quebec.
In his book ‘Distorted Descent,’ Leroux says white French descendants often use “an indigenous ancestor born between 300 and 375 years ago as the basis for a contemporary Indigenous’ identity.
With a little effort, Pouliot-Thisdale says distinguishing fakes will become easier, considering the volume of records now accessible to the public.
City Hall, for example, is only four blocks from Montreal’s public archives – something that should compel the city to improve their vetting processes for Indigenous-specific positions.
“I think that everybody’s starting to scan now, through all the organisms – provincial, municipal, and federal – that we have to go further than that,” he says.
“Not just make a little tick [like] I represent myself as a Native – no, you need to show the proof.”
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante said in a statement that Parent “made the right decision” and that it quote “demonstrates her good faith and sensitivity around these issues.”
Parent, for her part, says she hopes to return to the position once she can better prove her family history.
Pouliot-Thisdale’s assessment, she says, is “questionable.”