'Growing tension' inside the public service over Indigenous self-identification

Indigenous Services Canada's top official addressed the "contentious issue" of Indigenous identity in the public service by urging greater honesty in self-identification, in a recent internal blog leaked to CBC Indigenous.

"The key is to honestly tell your truth," wrote deputy minister Gina Wilson in the blog, which was circulated internally June 13.

Her post followed efforts by First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders to draw attention to the issue, including by demanding governments act to halt the rise of Indigenous identity theft.

Other sectors like academia and the arts have faced reckonings and controversies, but race-shifting, as the phenomenon is sometimes known, in the bureaucracy has largely escaped scrutiny.

Wilson is from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, an Algonquin community in Quebec, and has served in numerous executive posts in government including as the deputy minister champion for Indigenous federal employees.

In the blog, she acknowledged the challenge posed by false Indigenous identity claims and reminded staff of their commitment to prevent misrepresentation.

"This is a challenge that can be addressed, in part, by raising awareness and encouraging those who might falsely claim to be Indigenous to find their own authentic identity," reads the blog.

Gina Wilson is the deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada. She was the recipient of the 2020 Indspire Award for her leadership and her work on Indigenous issues and supporting Indigenous employees.
Gina Wilson is the deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada. She was the recipient of the 2020 Indspire Award for her leadership and her work on Indigenous issues and supporting Indigenous employees. (Gina Wilson/X)

Her decision to address the issue signals "a growing tension" around the lack of identity verification in government, which greatly impacts authentic Indigenous staff, says one elder who has worked extensively with Indigenous bureaucrats.

"People are getting hurt and hurt very badly to the point where they might become demoralized," said Mac Saulis, a Tobique First Nation member who lives in Ottawa.

Saulis is Wolastoqew and formerly worked at the Kumik Elder Lodge, which was installed at the Indigenous Affairs headquarters in Gatineau, Que., in 1990.

"The most sinister thing" about the current system is not just that people with dubious claims can benefit professionally, he said, but that they can land positions of high authority and influence, just by checking a box.

"The government counts on these people being authentic — that they have a grasp and a knowledge of issues — so they trust them a lot," he said.

'It is demoralizing'

McGill University associate professor Veldon Coburn agreed.

"It is demoralizing sitting there when you see somebody claim to be your identity, or at least your national First Nation identity, and they're not part of it," said Coburn, a member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn near Golden Lake, Ont.

He recounted an incident from around 2009 when he worked for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, then part of Health Canada. A senior manager was just appointed.

"One of the things they would relate to us was like, 'I didn't really know my background growing up, but I grew up kind of poor. So I know what it was like to be like you,'" Coburn recalled.

"And I thought, well, if individuals directing the creation and implementation of policy and programming have these sorts of attitudes, we're in a little bit of trouble."

Coburn called Wilson's blog an appeal to the better angels of her employees' nature, and perhaps the first step of intervention in that problem.

Veldon Coburn is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa in the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies.
Veldon Coburn is an associate professor at McGill University in Montreal. (Mike O'Shaughnessy/CBC)

The public service could be fertile ground for race-shifting given the job security, lucrative salaries and its size, he said.

The number of federal public service employees hit 357,000 in 2023, up from from 257,000 in 2015, according to the Treasury Board.

"With those numbers, you can be sure that the fraud is probably quite staggering," he said.

'There needs to be something done'

Abegweit First Nation member Patsy Bernard said she decided to act after seeing social media posts last month questioning the Indigenous identity of various Indigenous Services Canada senior officials.

Bernard, who is Mi'kmaw from Prince Edward Island, emailed the department demanding action. She said she is now blocked from sending such emails.

When asked why she sent the email, she said, "There needs to be something done."

"All these people are able to cut into our money. Like, I can't get anything. Jordan's Principle doesn't help my daughter; it doesn't help our family. I don't get any funding from anybody."

Her concerns are a common refrain — that the government dilutes rights and diverts resources away from people in need by accommodating those with shaky claims.

Both Coburn and Saulis agreed one solution would be to shift to a system of verification, as post-secondary institutions have done.

Wilson declined an interview request for this story.

Her blog suggests self-identification is here to stay, at least for now.

In it, the deputy minister noted that legislation, such as the Employment Equity Act, supports Indigenous self-identification as a means to redress racist policies and colonial harms. While she acknowledged the need for an Indigenous-led movement to find a way forward, she concluded with a plea for greater frankness.

Ryan Tyndall, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said in a statement that the department is aware of the shift in approaches toward verification by post-secondary institutions and will continue to examine best practices.

Job applicants self-identifying as Indigenous must fill out a one-page form attesting to their identity, Tyndall said, and providing false or misleading information on this form may lead to an investigation, which could lead to corrective actions.