Indigenous identity theft is more widespread than people think, says Métis lawyer Jean Teillet

Jean Teillet says questioning the Indigenous identities of lawyer and children’s advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and Memorial University President Vienne Timmons is great for nabbing headlines but is more than meets the eye.

“They’re just one of thousands of people who have very recently adopted an Indigenous identity,” she told Nation to Nation host Annette Francis. “And I mean thousands…tens of thousands of people, perhaps over a hundred thousand.”

Teillet went on to say it’s not just a huge problem but a growing trend.

“This isn’t like one guy, Grey Owl, back in the 1920s and ’30s; this is thousands and thousands of people who find it to their advantage nowadays to become Indigenous.”

And, they often do it to further their careers in academia and the arts or grab other opportunities such as job scholarships and grants, said Teillet.

Betty Nippi-Albright, NDP-MLA for Saskatchewan Centre, alleges people who falsely claim to be Indigenous also work for government. She has asked the province of Saskatchewan to validate the status of civil servants who claim to be Indigenous.

“We can do it,” she said on Nation to Nation. “We’ve done it when COVID happened and we had to have healthcare workers provide proof that they were vaccinated. So it’s something that is doable.”

Last October, Teillet wrote an 85-page report for the University of Saskatchewan, called Indigenous Identity Fraud. It started out as an investigation into whether former Professor Carrie Bourassa was being honest about her claim to Indigenous identity.

But before Teillet could publish the report, Bourassa resigned from the university.

Teillet published it any way, with recommendations on what to look for when hiring a candidate who claims to be an Indigenous person.

“The big ones I would say are changing stories,” she suggested. “We saw this with people like [author] Joseph Boyden. I think over a 10-year period he identified something like 11 different Indigenous groups.”

Awarding-winning Hip Hop Oji-Cree artist Plex wrote a song about the phenomenon called “Red Flags.”  It became a Number 1 hit on the Indigenous Music Countdown.

Plex told Nation to Nation the subject is a complex issue but he is confident more pretenders will ne outed.

“I’ve witnessed this my entire life,” he said. “My grandfather worked for Métis urban housing, and I was aware even back then in the ’80s that there were people that were abusing certain services that were allocated for marginalized people.”

As an artist, Plex said it’s important to cover a broad spectrum of topics, and he has more songs about the “pretendian” phenomenon in the works.

“Pretendians just seems to be hot right now.”

Nippi-Albright says Indigenous identity fraud is everywhere.

“It has been going on for so long, and we finally are able to start calling these ‘pretendians’ out…because this is an act of colonial violence against indigenous people.”

For her part, Teillet doesn’t like the term “pretendian” because of the seriousness of the situation.

“I think it’s too cute, right? Like kids pretend,” she said. “So it seems like it harmless when it’s just a ‘pretendian’. So, I don’t particularly like the term.”

Like Plex, Teillet believes more people will be outed for Indigenous identity fraud.

“There’s going to be some icons in the world out there, who have been claiming to be indigenous for years…and they’re going to be exposed, and everybody is going to be shocked.”

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