New policy clarifies expectations for those applying for McGill designated Indigenous positions

Interview with the chair of the working group behind the first iteration of the guiding document

McGill has a new policy to support the validation of claims to Indigenous citizenship/membership made by individuals applying for designated opportunities related to employment. McGill’s approach in developing the policy was grounded in its commitments towards truth and reconciliation outlined in its 52 Calls to Action.

Following its adoption by Senate on May 8 and the Board of Governors yesterday, the Policy on Indigenous Citizenship/Membership Validation is now in place. It follows nearly two years of consultation and study by a working group under the Office of Indigenous Initiatives (OII). The work was undertaken in collaboration with both internal and external Indigenous community members.

The McGill Reporter sat down with the chair of the working group, Professor Celeste Pedri-Spade, Associate Provost (Indigenous Initiatives).

What is the basis of the new policy and why is it needed at McGill?

This new policy is designed to preserve employment opportunities designated for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people that are anchored in truth and reconciliation. It creates a framework so that the University can validate claims of Indigenous membership/citizenship in situations where that claim is directly relevant to a person’s employment by the University.

Back in 2017, McGill outlined its pathway towards truth and reconciliation in its 52 Calls to Action, which included specific calls focused on increasing Indigenous representation throughout its workforce, notably among our academic staff. McGill’s efforts to respond to these calls requires a robust and equitable policy on Indigenous citizenship and membership. We have a responsibility to ensure we are, indeed, meeting our stated commitments.

There have been many publicized cases of what is often described as, “false claims to Indigeneity” in academia. There have also been concerns voiced by Indigenous peoples about how institutional responses to these cases, that they may seek to “police” or “weed people out.” What are your thoughts on this?

Delegation of McGill Indigenous staff and students with Jacqueline Ottmann, President of First Nations University of Canada, at the March 2023 forum on Indigenous membership/citizenship.

While the policy is centred in our commitments to truth, reconciliation, and upholding the integrity of designated spaces and opportunities, it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge the publicized reports of tenuous or false claims of Indigeneity within academia. Many Indigenous peoples and their respective communities are asking universities to do better.

At the same time, these stories, which we all process differently based on our varying lived experiences, may adversely affect the ways in which we relate to one another. This policy is not about policing, targeting, or investigating individuals; there are sections of the policy that makes this very clear. For example, it is not retroactive, which underscores that we are operating from an understanding that people here are acting in good faith.

There is also a section that clarifies that this policy does not aim to investigate or address fraudulent claims of Indigenous identity among persons currently employed at the University. It’s clear in the policy that “fraud,” or intentional misrepresentation to gain a material advantage, is misconduct, regardless of the claim in question. It can be addressed through the University’s existing regulatory framework outside of this policy.

To whom does the policy apply and under what circumstances?

This policy and its procedures apply to Indigenous people who are “Aboriginal” persons as defined in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. It includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis persons. It also applies to American Indian or Alaskan Native persons who are enrolled members of federally recognized Indian tribes whose reservation boundaries or traditional territories are intersected by the Canada-United States border. The inclusion of the latter group acknowledges that the Canada-United States border intersects specific Indigenous nations and/or their communities. Akwesasne, a Mohawk community proximate to our University, is an example of this. So, this inclusion respects the kin relations and pre-confederation Indigenous nation-to-nation relationships, treaties, protocols, and agreements that have and continue to be honoured by First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples.

This policy is related to faculty and staff but what about students?

When we commenced this process, we realized that the existing frameworks supporting our relationship with students is different. We also heard that if we wanted to pursue a collaborative approach, students required their own spaces to discuss this issue and that it was important that students play a more active role in leadership. This is why we convened a second working group to lead the student policy and its work is still in progress. As our intent was never to develop alternative criteria for students, we have strived to create opportunities where the two working groups have come together. While our procedures may differ considerably, we will ensure that there is an alignment with the core principles and key elements of the policies.

Does this policy prevent Indigenous peoples from elsewhere from working at McGill or self-identifying as Indigenous?

No, not at all. Individuals are free to self-identify. We recognize that people have the right to communicate to their peers that they may have some form of Indigenous ancestry, if they choose to do so. There are even specific sections in the policy that re-affirm this. The goal of the policy is to ensure that McGill is operating in a way that is consistent with its institutional obligations in the legal, political, and moral framework of Truth and Reconciliation, Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, and our respect for longstanding Indigenous diplomacies and geographies that are living realities in spite the creation of Canada and its borders with the United States.

It’s important for people to understand that this policy is inextricably tethered to our existing commitments to truth and reconciliation. I want to underscore that we are putting reconciliation into practice through this policy, not as a theoretical concept subject to academic debate, but as a real, material act that demonstrates that we have specific obligations to specific Indigenous people, especially people from nations, communities, and families that have been impacted generationally by the legacy of colonial policies and systems in Canada.

How do Indigenous community members feel about such policy initiatives?

After working for some time on this topic as an Ojibwe Anishinaabekwe scholar, I have learned that there are so many different thoughts and reactions to this work. It’s very challenging. There are many different emotions, feelings, and perspectives among Indigenous peoples related to these types of policy initiatives because this work touches on very personal topics like notions of belonging, place, rights, acceptance, and inclusion. These are extremely difficult things for Indigenous people to process and discuss given how colonialism has impacted our families, communities, and respective nations.

At the same time, Indigenous peoples are not a monolith. We are diverse in terms of gender, race, age, nationhood, etc. We all have different lived experiences, and it is unfair to expect everyone who identifies as Indigenous to end up at a point where we think the same about any of the aforementioned topics. Even though there is tension and often dividing perspectives, it doesn’t mean that we do not require a more equitable and transparent framework.

There have been several reports about how this type of policy should “do no harm.” How did your working group take that into account?

First of all, I have to say that I am very grateful to all Indigenous faculty and staff who contributed their time and effort to this project. I know that it was extremely challenging, particularly when views and perspectives did not align. Our working group heard early on that the idea of “Indigenous identity fraud” and terms like “Pretendian” may be harmful to those who may have been mislabeled in the past or who are struggling with aspects of identity and belonging due to the legacy of colonialism.

Instead, we centred the development of this policy on our institutional responsibilities to uphold the integrity of specific opportunities intended for Indigenous peoples with whom we have primary legal-constitutional and reconciliatory obligations.

An important aspect of minimizing harm was ensuring that the committee overseeing this work had diverse Indigenous representation. It was diverse by gender, age, race, Indigenous nationhood, and lived experience. We had members who had directly experienced loss of culture due to Indian Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, and invasive child welfare.

An integral component of the policy that minimizes harm is the inclusion of an option whereby someone who lacks documentation due to the specific ways that colonialism has impacted them may still provide information towards the validation of their claim. We commit to accepting this information and working collaboratively with the Indigenous community/nation being claimed to ensure we are moving forward in an appropriate manner.

Lastly, many of the discussion reports reviewed stressed the importance of moving in a way that ensured we did not perpetuate further harm to the Indigenous peoples upon whose land we are working and living. They are our hosts. It was integral that they provide support for this work because we have a responsibility to act on our Indigenous land acknowledgement, which honours and mentions the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Nations.

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke not only provided written support for this work, they also wrote to us, impressing on us the importance and urgency of implementing this policy. In addition to this support, we received written support from the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, which represents the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The communities that are within the Algonquin Anishinabe also supported this policy work.

Drafting a policy may give some a sense that the work is now done. How do you see it?

As the Associate Provost of Indigenous Initiatives, I have always approached this work with the understanding that this policy initiative is, first and foremost, about institutional accountability. I know that the working group, along with the many people who voiced their perspectives regarding the policy, were of the mind that McGill should do its best to approach this policy as a “living document.” We are prepared to revisit it as we learn and to respond to the evolving relations that inform the practical, constitutional, and political circumstances relevant to Indigenous communities and their respective governance systems.

I want to acknowledge and extend my gratitude to members of the working group who shouldered the responsibility of producing a policy that is both practical and workable for McGill at this time in its history. It demonstrates that we are respecting and responding to Indigenous communities in a meaningful way. I am committed to seeing this through, carefully, and with the utmost respect for everyone affected.