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Indigenous scholar says he was rejected by University of Sask. over lack of documentation

An award-winning Cree-Métis professor who grew up in northern Saskatchewan will not be moving to his home province’s university because administrators demanded certain paperwork to prove he’s Indigenous.

“I wanted to come to the University of Saskatchewan. This is all pretty disappointing,” Réal Carrière said.

Critics say Carrière’s ordeal is an example of misguided over-reaction by U of S administrators to an earlier case of an Indigenous identity controversy involving former U of S professor Carrie Bourassa.

Indigenous studies faculty say they’re angry about the Carrière situation, but also fear existing staff might soon face these new “colonial” requirements.

“There’s a strong stink to all of this. This is a step backwards. I think it’s a mistake,” said acting Indigenous studies department head Jim Waldram.

Fellow faculty member Winona Wheeler agreed.

“It’s really, really sad we weren’t able to hire one of our own sons. This is his home territory. He would bring so much to the university [with] his academic background, traditional knowledge and community connections,” Wheeler said.

No one from the university’s administration was available for an interview, but last month, the U of S announced it would have an Indigenous verification policy in place by fall.

In a written statement to CBC News Thursday morning, U of S interim chief communications officer Heather Persson said the events described by Carrière, Wheeler and Waldram are an “inaccurate depiction of our recruitment process.” Persson said privacy rules prohibit officials from giving any further details.

Réal Carrière and his sister, Michela, grew up on the family trap line in northern Saskatchewan’s Cumberland Delta. (askiholisticadventures.com)

Carrière’s family has lived for generations in and around the Cumberland House Cree Nation and adjacent Métis village more than 400 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

His father, Solomon, is a world champion marathon canoeist and trapper while his mother, Renee, is a land-based educator and his sister Michela is a horticulturalist who hosts eco-tours in the Cumberland Delta.

“That’s about as Indigenous as you can get,” Wheeler said.

Waldram, one of the original faculty members of the the Indigenous studies department nearly 40 years ago, said Carrière was “ideally positioned and would have been a tremendous asset.”

Carrière, who speaks Cree, has taught at the University of Manitoba for several years after winning multiple awards for his doctoral thesis entitled Rediscovering the Path: Decolonizing Indigenous Governance.

Late last year, a faculty position was posted by the U of S Indigenous studies department. Carrière said he was happy at the U of M, but jumped at the chance to return “home” to the U of S.

Earlier this year, he was interviewed by a committee including Waldram, Wheeler and five other Indigenous faculty members. It included a lengthy discussion on his Indigenous identity.

Carrière said he was happy to discuss his identity with the hiring committee, who then contacted his family and community members.

Carrière was the unanimous choice of the committee, and a job offer was prepared.

‘Our identity has been policed for generations’

But then an extra step was added by high-ranking university administrators, they said. Without consulting the hiring committee, the interim vice-provost called Carrière in for an interview.

Carrière said he was told to submit written documentation proving he’s Indigenous. Carrière does not have written documentation of his status because he believes it’s a “colonial” method.

“Our identity has been policed for generations. Now we’re reducing it to a status card or piece of paper? Is this reconciliation?” Carrière said.

“What about the thousands of non-status people working at various institutions? Are they going to be told they’re not valued anymore?”

In a further effort to convince administrators, the hiring committee submitted a letter from an elder, as well as various videos. They say it wasn’t enough. Carrière withdrew his name.

“This institution is supposed to be a leader in the community. It would have been great to come back,” Carrière said.

Waldram said he feels bad for Carrière, but he’s also angry that administrators disrespected the wishes of their expert committee.

“This was an expert group of mainly Indigenous scholars, but we were cut out,” Waldram said.

Carrière’s ordeal is a direct result of an earlier controversy at the U of S, Waldram and Wheeler said.

Carrie Bourassa recently resigned from the University of Saskatchewan following accusations she made false claims about her Indigenous ancestry. (YouTube)

In a CBC News story late last year, Wheeler and others said professor Carrie Bourassa had made numerous false claims about her Indigenous identity. Bourassa went on unpaid leave from one of her positions and resigned earlier this month from the U of S faculty.

It sparked a national conversation on how to define “Indigenous,” particularly for positions reserved for Indigenous people. But little attention was paid to the negative effects of implementing an impersonal, document-based system, say critics.

‘Bordering on the paranoid’

Wheeler, Waldram and others say U of S administrators, in a desperate effort to avoid another public scandal, have caused the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction.

“It’s bordering on the paranoid,” Wheeler said.

“Instead of trying to weed out the frauds, our identity has been problematized and it’s up to us to prove who we are.”

In the wake of the Bourassa controversy, the U of S and other universities established task forces on the issue of Indigenous identity. A national conference was held in Regina this spring.

Wheeler and Waldram said they hope the U of S task force will come up with more reasonable policies. They also hope that the detailed work of Indigenous scholars such as those on Carrière’s hiring committee will be respected in the future.

In the Thursday written statement, Persson said the U of S “respects the principles of sovereignty and self-determination in relation to Indigenous membership and citizenship. The Indigenous membership and citizenship task force is working with Indigenous communities and leaders to identify the appropriate verification information to be required when hiring Indigenous scholars.” 

Last month, Angela Jaime, interim vice-provost of Indigenous engagement at the U of S and chair of the task force, said the new policy will involve “creating a space that is meant for Indigenous people, resources that are meant for Indigenous people to make sure that we don’t have fraudulent claims going forward.

“We’re working to do an even better job going forward in creating that space of funding resources positions [and], senior leadership positions. And we want to be very clear that it’s important that Indigenous voices are holding those spaces.”

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