The identity claims of a Quebec professor continue to provoke the anger of many Indigenous people, who accuse the one who claims to be Eastern Métis of appropriation. Tensions are running high as Carleton develops an Aboriginal hiring policy.
By Laurence Niosi (Radio-Canada)
Translated by Darryl Leroux
The issue of identity theft is disrupting university practices and heightening tensions at institutions across the country. At Carleton University in Ottawa, unease is growing around law professor Sébastien Malette, whose claims to an Aboriginal identity are questioned by many.
Most recently, on November 8, the graduate student association in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton, sent a letter to department chairperson, Betina Appel Kuzmarov, demanding the suspension of the Québécois professor because of his claims to Indigenous identity. “It’s an open secret,” they wrote.
These claims “are eroding trust in the department and alienating students, especially Indigenous students,” reads the internal letter, a copy of which Radio-Canada obtained.
The letter was sent in the wake of revelations of identity theft cases at other universities in Saskatchewan and Ontario and echoes details about the professor’s identity that circulated on social media this past summer.
A dialogue on “Indigenous identity theft” must begin without students fearing repercussions, writes the association.
Sébastien Malette, a professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies, calls himself Indigenous, but has no First Nations ancestors until the 17th century, or 11 generations away, according to Dominique Ritchot, a genealogist consulted by Radio-Canada.
Malette, who self-identifies as Eastern Métis, has also taught at Kiuna College in the community of Odanak, near Trois-Rivières, and is conducting research on and advocating for the existence of the Eastern Métis [as a distinct Indigenous people stretching from Nova Scotia to Ontario].
Several disputes over the years
The allegations against him are not limited to the letter from the student association. Over the years, Sébastien Malette has had several skirmishes with Indigenous people who questioned his origins.
A former Anishinaabe student of Mr. Malette’s, Freddy StoneyPoint, says he was threatened with expulsion by Carleton administration in the spring of 2018 after he questioned Mr. Malette’s Indigenous origins on social media. The experience left him with a “bitter” taste in his mouth, he says, and pushed him to leave the university, which he accuses of protecting the professor.
Another student, Inuk woman Aliqa Illauq, claims to have been dissuaded by university administration from filing a complaint against Professor Malette for identity fraud. “[Indigenous identity fraud] contributes to creating an environment that isn’t safe for Indigenous people at university,” says the young woman, who spoke with her former professor herself to challenge his identity claims.
The unease grew to such an extent that in December 2018, a Métis professor at the University of Ottawa, Darren O’Toole, sent a 16-page complaint to Carleton President Benoit-Antoine Bacon. In the letter, O’Toole described Professor Malette as a “white French-Canadian man” who, “under the guise of being Indigenous, not only occupies Indigenous space at Carleton, but makes it a hostile space for people who are truly Indigenous.”
His complaint was dismissed by the president’s office because the university claimed that it violated Mr. Malette’s right to “exercise academic freedom.” “As a permanent member of the Carleton faculty, Dr. Malette is entitled to freedom to conduct research and publish his results, to teach and discuss his research, and freedom from institutional censorship,” he was told.
Earlier, in September 2018, Anishinaabe professor Veldon Coburn was the subject of a complaint addressed to the President, barely a week after his hiring at Carleton. Written by attorney Daphne Williamson, the letter accused Dr. Coburn of “lateral violence” for calling out self-proclaimed Métis groups on social media as Indigenous identity “thieves.”
Professor Malette claims not to have been the author of the complaint, but confirms “having provided, at the request of Ms. Williamson’s clients, screenshots of tweets in connection to the ideas and comments made publicly by Veldon Coburn denying the existence of the Eastern Métis.”
In the complaint, Veldon Coburn is accused of contributing to a form of “cultural genocide,” similar to the impacts of residential schools on Indigenous people.
Professor Coburn found the comparison insulting. “None of these fake Métis or their families went to residential schools,” says the member of the Pikwàkanagàn community, who now teaches at the University of Ottawa.
In the winter of 2018, Rob Innes, a Plains Cree professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at McMaster University in Ontario, was in Ottawa at the invitation of the Minwaashin Lodge, a support center for Indigenous women. Dr. Innes spoke and Professor Malette interrupted him, raised his voice, and accused him of having been hostile, he says.
Professor Innes doesn’t recall having interacted with Mr. Malette prior to that event. Only, he says, to have participated in an exchange on Twitter on the question of Mr. Malette’s Indigenous identity.
“I simply expressed my dissatisfaction with him in complete transparency,” says Sébastien Malette about the incident.
Ancestry in the 17th century
In 2013, while a student, Sébastien Malette wrote to genealogist Dominique Ritchot. In an email, he said he wanted “to establish genealogical evidence showing [his] Métis parentage” in order to apply for his Métis status with an Ontario organization.
Mrs. Ritchot completed Mr. Malette’s genealogy, who grew up in Gatineau to Québécois parents. She found two Indigenous ancestors at the 11th and 12th generations, one in each line. Two women born in the 17th century, Symphorose Tapakoé and Marie Asemgamasoua, of whom “we do not know much,” she says, except that “several thousand” Quebecers are descended from them.
However, Sébastien Malette, who occasionally wears traditional Indigenous clothing or accessories – fringed coat, sacred purse or Métis arrowhead sash – claimed in a Twitter post in 2016 that he was raised by his father “as a mixed-blood.” The professor further claimed to have Wendat, Anishinaabe, as well as Michigamea ancestry, a group of Indigenous nations who lived in what is now Illinois.
In an email sent to Radio-Canada, Sébastien Malette defined himself as a “French-Canadian Métis, according to the inclusive understanding articulated [by Métis leader] Louis Riel.” On his website, the professor writes that for Riel, “a drop of [European and Indigenous] blood was enough to make someone Métis.” An interpretation refuted by other academics, including Darren O’Toole, who believes that Mr. Malette quotes the Métis leader out of context.
Sébastien Malette also denounced the case against him on social networks: “My point of view on the tactics used on social networks to discredit Indigenous identities is clear: I denounce attacks that often use anonymity, intimidation and doxxing [a practice that involves divulging information on a person’s identity or private life with a view to discrediting them], as well as sloppy or incomplete genealogical work,” he writes.
He believes that his detractors ignore “oral tradition” and “cultural transmission.”
But Dominique Ritchot affirms that genealogy serves precisely to confirm or invalidate these oral traditions, and that the civil registers are complete and therefore leave no room for doubt about his true genealogy.
Carleton is reviewing its hiring process
Contacted by Radio-Canada, Carleton University’s administration didn’t want to comment on Sébastien Malette’s specific case, but said “they take seriously the risks associated with the determination of Indigenous identity.”
The university administration indicates that it is “currently in discussion with Indigenous communities and legal experts in the development of a process to protect opportunities for Indigenous peoples.”
On December 7, the university clarified its approach in a press release. At the time, it announced that it was in the process of developing a specific hiring policy for Indigenous candidates, which is being piloted by three Indigenous people. A consultation process should be launched this month.
In its “Indigenous strategy” released in 2020, Carleton University already noted “the need for a more rigorous hiring policy that addresses dubious claims to Indigenous identity when interviewing potential faculty members.”
The hiring process, the report continued, should, for example, require a letter of support from an Indigenous community that authenticates claims of Indigenous identity.
Asked about this, Professor Malette said he welcomed all measures aimed at “greater inclusion of all Indigenous people [at the university],” provided that this inclusion also targeted Eastern Métis and “non-status Indigenous peoples.”
Investigating the presence of the Eastern Métis
The number of Quebecers who identify as Métis has exploded in recent years. They were 69,000 in 2016, a jump of 150% compared to 2006, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada. A similar phenomenon is occurring elsewhere in Ontario (+54%) and in the Maritimes, such as in Nova Scotia (+125%).
In 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that, to be Métis, one had to demonstrate, among other things, the existence of a historical community and a distinct culture (the Powley decision), as the Métis Nation in Western Canada, who has its own ancestral language, culture and territory, already has.
Since then, self-identified Métis groups in the East have been trying to obtain official recognition – with the associated hunting or fishing rights – and are waging legal battles that they finance from their membership dues. They have been unsuccessful so far.
Sébastien Malette, co-author of Bois-Brûlés, a book aimed at demonstrating the existence of Métis in the Outaouais, acted as an expert witness for one of these groups in Maniwaki. The latter seeks to prove before the courts the existence of a historic and contemporary Métis community in the Outaouais, traditional territory of the Algonquin-Anishinaabe.
In an April 2016 ruling, Quebec Superior Court Judge Pierre Dallaire said that “nailing Jell-O to a wall” would be easier than understanding the group’s “remarkably vague and elusive claims” about the existence of such a community in the Outaouais.
Sébastien Malette recently obtained two grants worth $203,999 and $25,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) aimed at “investigating the presence of a distinct Métis people in Nova Scotia [and New Brunswick].” This caused an outcry among Mi’kmaw First Nations.
“Do you know that you fund research projects and organizations that have had their claims politically, legally, and academically refuted, and that speak openly against the Mi’kmaq […] and undermine Indigenous peoples and their ancestral rights?,” wrote Mi’kmaw leaders and the Métis National Council in a letter to SSHRC, sent in December 2020.
Professor Veldon Coburn agrees. “He [Mr. Malette] is using his [SSHRC] money to fabricate new peoples that threaten the existence, title and rights of [actual] Indigenous peoples,” he believes.
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council told Radio-Canada that Professor Mallette’s grant application was deemed “administratively admissible.”
“As is the case with other research, we recognize that the research results arising from this project could potentially cause some controversy,” added a spokesperson.