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Indigenous Identity & Self-Identification

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


This week we have been discussing Indigenous identity. Indigenous identity is a very complex concept. There are many factors to contemplate, and there are unique circumstances to consider in each case.


Photo credit: https://thewalrus.ca/can-the-government-take-away-my-indigenous-identity/


Self-identification of Indigenous identity is a serious issue that is becoming more prevalent. Self-identification means that a person is asked to state whether they are Indigenous or not, and there is no requirement for proof. This can be positive, beneficial, and harmless in certain situations, as long as each person is truthful about their identity. For example, situations that allow Indigenous people to connect with Indigenous communities, learn about Indigenous events, or access supports and services. As long as self-identification is done honestly and accurately, it does not seem to harm anyone.


However, self-identification is not always done honestly and accurately. The stakes are not always low. In many situations, false self-identification can harm Indigenous individuals and communities. Self-identification of Indigenous identity is a serious issue, especially when it’s about more than community connection or staying updated on current events. For example, if applicants for awards, grants, jobs, positions of power, or other benefits are asked to self-identify by simply checking a box without requirements to prove Indigenous identity, the intended benefits of these opportunities can go to non-Indigenous people. Grants and positions created for Indigenous people often have either an ameliorative purpose, or were created because an Indigenous perspective is required in that area. Without appropriate safeguards, the purpose of these positions is fragmented.


This results in a non-Indigenous person taking away an opportunity that was meant for an Indigenous person. These non-Indigenous people are taking up spaces that are not theirs to begin with. [1] People pretending to be Indigenous make their way into jobs or other positions of power, and their perspectives, ideas, and voices are amplified. This leads to the misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples, or a false sense that Indigenous perspectives have been included in decision-making processes. They can “exploit trauma that is not theirs to tell,” which further ignores “actual people and communities who constantly struggle with the effects of colonization and trauma to this day.” [2]


Indigenous identity and self-identification are controversial and sensitive topics, which are often met with a range of emotions and perspectives. Some Indigenous people are calling for an end to self-identification and the honour system, and advocate for a requirement of proof of Indigenous status. [3] Requiring proof, rather than solely self-identification, could help to lessen the risk of non-Indigenous people exploiting Indigenous cultures and trauma, and taking away spaces, benefits, and platforms meant for Indigenous people.


While recognizing the great harms that come from non-Indigenous people lying about Indigenous identity, it is still important to approach these issues with kindness. As Neegahnii Madeline Chakasim acknowledges, “the journey of identity and self-acceptance varies for many” Indigenous people. [4] Colonization has separated many Indigenous people from their communities, families, and cultures. Many individuals are still currently in the process of figuring out their own identity and history. A person’s ability to prove their Indigenous status “may be significantly compromised by the fact that past Canadian governments pursued a policy of displacement and assimilation towards” Indigenous peoples in Canada. [5]


Due to the complexity and seriousness of the issue of self-identification, it is important to acknowledge the gravity of each situation of possible fraudulent claims, while still approaching each case from a place of kindness, and with a commitment to understanding the unique circumstances of Indigenous identities. As a final note, it should be encouraged for non-Indigenous people to be allies, engage with Indigenous communities, and participate in Indigenous events where appropriate, without feeling the need to lie about their identity.


Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG


[1] Neegahnii Madeline Chakasim, “Pretendians and their Impacts on Indigenous Communities” (10 May 2022) The Indigenous Foundation <Pretendians and their Impacts on Indigenous Communities — The Indigenous Foundation>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Brandon Montour, “Opinion: End the honour system for Indigenous self-identification” (26 October 2022), Montreal Gazette <https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/opinion-end-the-honour-system-for-indigenous-self-identification>; Natan Obed, “We must adopt policies that require proof of Indigenous status and end self-identification” (22 October 2022), CBC News <https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/opinion-indigenous-self-identification-must-end-natan-obed-1.6624157>.

[4] Supra note 1.

[5] R. v. J.R., 2006 CanLII 40236 (ON SC), <https://canlii.ca/t/1q3d4>, retrieved on 2022-11-13, at footnote 2.


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