University of Saskatchewan is embroiled in a controversy over “self-identification” of ethnic or cultural status. According to news reports, Carrie Bourassa of the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology has claimed Indigenous/Native American heritage, but is “entirely [of] European descent.” Self-identification has long been accepted in many universities and recently The Hill ran a story that over one-third of white students may have lied about their race on college applications.
Bourassa has been accused of changing prior claims of being Métis by arguing that she “was adopted into the community by a Métis friend of her grandfather” and that “elders who support her do not rely on ‘blood quantums’ to assess Indigenous identity.” She admits that there is no proof that she is Métis or Tlingit by birth.
That has caused tension at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research where Bourassa serves as scientific director of the Indigenous health. The CIHR insists that “On the question of Dr. Bourassa’s identity, we recognize that Indigenous identity is complex, multifaceted and deeply personal and we support Indigenous self-identification.”
That creates a situation not unlike the Elizabeth Warren controversy where the senator insisted that her false claim of Native American ancestry was not the basis of her being hired or promoted at law schools. She later claimed a 1/32 link, which many do not consider sufficient.
There is merit to the position of the universities in both the Bourassa and Warren cases. The false claim of Indigenous ancestry may be an honest mistake or a knowing falsehood. It is hard to confirm such intent or scienter to support termination. Moreover, while knowingly false statements are considered unethical conduct, they are rarely the sole basis for termination (particularly on issues that do not touch upon published research or academic functions).
Nevertheless, Indigenous academics, such as Raven Sinclair from the University of Regina have objected that keeping Bourassa employed is “untenable.”
The controversy again raises whether self-identification is truly sufficient for faculty members or students to claim racial classifications. That is the current approach on applications for most colleges and universities.