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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

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.

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.

And further east, Inuit and the Innu Nation have raised concerns about the NunatuKavut Community Council who 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 rights is “very difficult,” but decisions need to be made over the next few years, including about the recognition of Métis.

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.”

-By Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press