Activist Sacheen Littlefeather, born Marie Louise Cruz (Photo by Kim Komenich/Getty Images)

Pretendians and the crisis of the self

Why are people manufacturing indigenous heritage?

Artillery Row

We are what we pretend to be,” Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Lately, several successful Canadians have been told in no uncertain terms that this premise is false but the thesis true: they were very careless indeed in their choice of assumed identity. Allegedly, and in some cases confessedly, they have pretended to be indigenous inhabitants of a vast country, with all the overdue privileges such a status can confer.

Cheyanne Turions was an award-winning curator at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia and recipient of grants intended for aboriginal applicants. She resigned in late 2021 after an anonymous Twitter account, NoMoreRedFace, exposed her non-Indigeneity. Dr Carrie Bourassa (aka Morning Star Bear) was a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan who claimed Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit identities and ran an Indigenous health research laboratory. She resigned in summer 2022 when the CBC found no trace of Indigeneity in her heredity. Dr Vianne Timmons, Order of Canada, Vice-Chancellor of Memorial University, Newfoundland, who claimed Mi’kmaq identity, was removed from office in early April 2023. A CBC investigation could not verify her claim, and the Bras d’Or (Mi’kmaq) Nation declined to countenance her.  Until August 2022 Gina Adams was an assistant professor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver, claiming to be descended from inhabitants of the White Earth Reservation (Ojibway Nation), Minnesota. A few days after “outing” Turions, NoMoreRedFace posted a tweet accusing Adams of Indigenous identity fraud. Like several of the others, she was a teacher and curator and thus a conduit for Indigenous culture.

The most distinguished casualty of this purge of alleged (white) “Pretend Indians” has been Dr Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (aka aki-kwe), Order of Canada, tenured professor of law at the University of British Columbia, criminal law judge, senior counsel with an Indigenous law firm in Victoria, BC, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth, and author of a 2020 report on racism endured by Indigenous people in the BC health care system. By late 2022, Turpel-Lafond had vacated these elevated institutional positions after an investigation by CBC News could not verify Turpel-Lafond’s Treaty Indian status (Cree Nation) or some of her academic qualifications. Canadian newspaper readers are currently being kept abreast of the serial voluntary return of the eleven honorary degrees conferred on Turpel-Lafond.

These high-profile cases involve significant stakes in job appointment, preferment, prestige, salaries and grants. Tellingly or not, they all involve women, but the claims to Indigenous identity made by the well-known Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden have also been disputed. The author of the acclaimed Three Day Road (2005, winner of an Aboriginal Book of the Year award amongst other awards), who has been outspoken on native affairs, has over the years sequentially asserted his Ojibway, Nipmuc, Woodland Metis and Mi’kmq blood. An investigation by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APN) and various researchers could find no evidence for Boyden’s claims of Indigeneity.

APN exhumed the memory of Boyden’s uncle, Erl Boyden, who was the subject of a 1956 Maclean’s Magazine profile. As “Injun Joe”, Uncle Erl in native garb sold fake Indigenous souvenirs to tourists in Ontario and let them take photos of “what they idiotically believe to be a real live Canadian Indian… who am I to spoil their fun?” Erl Konig Boyden’s fraudulence belonged to the vanished, more carefree 1950s North America where white tourists could kid around with black bears in Yosemite, having fun with the wildlife and with that other, now tamed forest inhabitant, the “red Indian”. Erl presumably didn’t go to bed as Injun Joe, despite his nephew’s later claim that he had aboriginal blood (Erl admitted he didn’t have a drop); there was no transitioning involved here. It seems, however, that in the more serious 1930s, Archibald Stansfeld Belaney did go to bed as his Indian alter ego, Grey Owl, native conservationist and nature writer.

Belaney’s duplicity extended beyond the racial self he adopted

Belaney was in truth a native of Hastings. Soon after he emigrated to Canada in 1906 at the age of eighteen, he decided to become a Native American, of now Apache, now Ojibway heritage, over the years updating the specifics of his tribal ancestry as occasion suggested. Grey Owl became famous. He received a visit from his admirer Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor-General of Canada and (as John Buchan) author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. He toured Britain in traditional Ojibway clothing (his aunts in Hastings kept mum until a year before their nephew’s death), his book Pilgrims in the Wild sold enormously, and the well-known writer Lovat Dickson wrote an admiring and credulous biography twice. The truth about this celebrated Indigenous identity fraudster came fully to light only after his death in 1938. When it did, there was a division of opinion as to the effect on his writings and conservation work. The name Grey Owl vanished from the covers and title pages of his reprinted books, but his good work in beaver protection and forest preservation lessened the obloquy attached to Belaney’s memory, a balance-sheet attempted in defence of those currently accused of identity fraud but less successfully.

It turned out that Belaney’s duplicity extended beyond the racial self he adopted. He lied about his marital status to a Mohawk teenager and married her bigamously, though she seemed not to care when she found out. When in 1915 he enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, he gave his birthplace as Montreal. Later he told Dickson he was born in Hermosillo, Mexico and that his mother was Katherine Cochise of the Jicarilla people (Apache), his father a former scout during the 1870 Indian Wars. Some contemporary identity fraudsters have also had parts of their CV questioned that don’t directly involve race.

Belaney seems to have relished the tangled web of his deceptions. Whether that was the case with those currently accused of being Pretend Indians is unclear — likewise, as to the possibility of their alleged deception reflecting a personal character trait or state of mind. Their alleged fraud seems more determined and single-minded, less dramatic and alluring; they may be acting a part but they have no intention of adding to the gaiety of nations. Their only purpose is to instruct the rest of us. In role, they are furthering a roughly pre-scripted agenda which, to the extent that they are not actually First Nations, they are furthering by proxy. That doesn’t preclude the possibility of some personality trait at work.


The agenda crosses the Canadian-US border. Maria Louise Cruz from Salinas, California, despite her Mexican-American background, adopted around the age of 24 the identities of Apache and Yaqui and the name “Sacheen Littlefeather”. She went on famously (or notoriously), and movingly, to decline on his behalf Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Oscar in 1973. The lead actor in The Godfather was protesting by proxy the representation of American Indians in Hollywood films and also ongoing events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota (when followers of the American Indian Movement seized and held the town for 71 days). Cruz’s sisters told Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo author, that their family had no Native American ancestry and that their actress sister had fabricated an aboriginal identity for its prestige value. The university historian Liza Black, of the Cherokee Nation, believes Cruz to have been “a troubled woman who made the stories of others her own”. Her troubles included an abused childhood and a spell in a psychiatric hospital. She claimed to have been one of the “Indians of All Tribes” (IAT) occupiers of Alcatraz in 1970, but this has been challenged.

Beyond pro-aboriginal rights advocacy, the self-fashioned life of Maria Cruz seemed also to occupy the heady 1960s counter-culture of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, Black Elk Speaks and Whole Earth Catalog when the American roots of today’s woke revolution were put down. It was on the threshold of the 1960s that the journalist John Howard Griffin successfully disguised himself as a black man and travelled for weeks through the segregated Deep South to experience life as a black American. His project borrowed for serious purpose the long tradition of blackface in western entertainment, and his resulting book, Black Like Me (1961), recounted the travails of the race he temporarily pretended to belong to. He was supported in his project by the African-American magazine Sepia. When the Pittsburgh journalist Ray Sprigle had made the same journey in disguise a decade earlier for his newspaper articles that became a book, In the Land of Jim Crow (1949), he was accompanied by J.W. Dobbs, a social leader provided by the NAACP.

By contrast, those recently accused of faking black were enjoying position and prestige in what was presumably meant to be a lifelong project of full racial transition. Nor were new black colleagues privy to their real identity. The two highest-profile examples are Dr Jessica Krug (aka Jess La Bombalera) and Rachel Dolezal MFA summa cum laude (aka Kkechi Amare Diallo), the first a white Jewish woman from Kansas, the second a white woman from Montana of Czech ancestry. Both are clearly intelligent, even gifted. They were also successful, in the case of Krug as researcher, historian (George Washington University) and author (Fugitive Modernities, Duke University Press, 2018); and in the case of Dolezal as art teacher, university African Studies instructor and activist organiser (rising to become president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP). The known Canadian Pretendians share this notable degree of intelligence, education and, in some cases, real talent.

Krug claimed that as a child in the Bronx she had been abused by her drug-addict Puerto Rican mother, a multi-layered fiction recalling Dolezal’s claim that she was beaten by her parents, “punished by skin complexion”. Rejection of the real parents, and the violent white culture they are held to represent, with the personal victimage thus illegitimately attained, is a common feature of the current race impostor syndrome. Dolezal began darkening her skin around the age of 34, but unlike Griffin, she presumably meant the alteration to be for keeps. By the next year, 2012, she seems to have been accepted by Spokane residents as black. Her father was by then not Lawrence Dolezal of Czech origin but Albert Wilkerson, a black friend.

With Dolezal, it was a case of the red and the black. She claimed to be part-Indigenous, born in a tepee into a family that hunted with bows and arrows. The curious habit amongst race pretenders of claiming multiple ethnicities is presumably encouraged by life in a multicultural society where one is surrounded by people of various ethnicities. It is a multicultural society, moreover, that recently in both Canada and the USA has become less Caucasian, offering instead a palette of colours to choose from. Whiteness is losing not just its normative standing, but its moral standing.

Still, there is a rough hierarchy involved, and only certain race or ethnic identities currently qualify, via victimhood, for appropriation. I am an Ulsterman of Presbyterian upbringing and presumably Scots extraction, someone who identifies as British as well as Irish. Satirists aside, no one pretends to be a Northern Irish Protestant in heritage. The non-skin colour popularly associated with my heritage is orange, though it also used to be black since I hail from what was once called the Black North, inhabited by “blackmouths” (Presbyterians). Vice-President Joe Biden told the Irish Taoiseach in Washington, greeting him for the St Patrick’s Day blarneyfest in 2015, “If you’re wearing orange, you’re not welcome in here.” He cracked the joke (though joke it actually was not) because he knew the Taoiseach had (like himself, or so Joe believes) the politically-correct ethnic identity, i.e. “green”.

Preoccupations with race and gender have totally eclipsed concerns over social class

For over a century, the green has been much admired and often mimicked. I remember seeing the acclaimed Irish actor, dramatist and impresario Micheál Mac Liammóir impersonating the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde (himself an inveterate self-fashioner) on the Dublin stage in his one-man show and biggest theatrical success. MacLiammóir himself was in actuality pretend Irish. He was born in north-west London as Alfred Willmore of no known Irish connection, became Michael Willmore when he started acting, went in 1917 to Ireland to live and became successively Micheál Mac Uaimmhóir, Mac Liaaimmhóir and finally Mac Liammóir. He claimed to have been born in Cork. Like the other “faces”, there was a political resonance to Mac Liammóir’s greenface beyond the roar of the greasepaint. Mac Liammóir’s chosen birthplace, Cork, had republican associations; he became a Gaelic enthusiast when the language was a plank in the pro-independence platform. With all the fervour of the convert, he also campaigned for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election. Since his time and up until today, the superficial allure of Irish identity has attracted the English and Americans to the Irish republican cause, giving it support and credibility which has in effect impeded reconciliation between the orange and the green in Northern Ireland. The effect of Pretendians on Canada’s current national project of Truth and Reconciliation has yet to be assessed.

The crossing of ethnic and gender lines has occasionally been a feature of those faking red or black. Rachel Dolezal has been accused by a Gender Studies scholar of spuriously appropriating the rhetoric of transgender identity as well as blackness, of failing to deny that she is “transracial”. In a 2017 interview, Dolezal said she identified as “trans-black”. She has also been defended by a sociologist, however, on the grounds that one can nowadays change one’s racial affiliation, be born in the wrong skin and do something about it — just as one can take on (or liberate) another gender. The alleged parallel between “transgenderism” and “transracialism” suggests a hunger by some for multiple abnormative identities with a history of being oppressed. Such cases might with sufficient media exposure have helped to familiarise us with, if not normalise, the radically diversifying nature of the personal self.

Jessica Krug also crossed the social class line by feigning a belligerent Bronx Puerto Rican persona. Working-class membership is no longer a desirable identity to assume, however. In the 1930s, it was. In Paris, London and the industrial north of England, George Orwell (whom Eric Blair had become) anticipated with social class the race experiments of Sprigle and Griffin. The political implications of Orwell’s temporary working-class identity fraud were made clear in the attempts of his publisher Victor Gollancz to muffle Orwell’s reservations in Down and Out in Paris and London about leftist ideology. Recently, however, preoccupations with race and gender in the English-speaking countries have totally eclipsed our concerns over social class. This is reflected in the exclusive prominence of race identity fraud and gender transition claims.


The response to accusations of race identity fraud by those accused, and by those whose identity has been forged or plagiarised, might suggest we are living in a crisis of personal identity. This means by extension a crisis of social and even national identity, with its implications for the cohesion of English-speaking societies. It is rare for those accused of identity fraud to plead mental illness, though several of them have had psychological problems in their background. Jessica Krug in a blog of 3 September 2020 confessed to having lied all her life and to have battled “some unaddressed mental health demons” along the way. It is an abject and almost harrowing coming clean, the kind of self-indictment that reads like an appeal for clemency and forgiveness. In its fulsomeness, it threatens to turn back on itself as self-vindication.

It is also an episode in the decades’-long development of the vulnerable, frangible and often fracturing self that had its relevant origins in American psychotherapeutic vision and practice from the 1960s. This self has assimilated the notion of victimhood. Innumerable television talk shows, self-help gurus, books and daytime soap operas advertised the self as commonly abused, oppressed or addicted, whilst exposing the private self to public view — thereby making them one and the same. It became a necessary virtue in the world of entertainment and even art to have allegedly suffered. Along the line, this perception of the self was popularly adopted by the other English-speaking societies. What used to be regarded as character flaws, or simple bad luck to be weathered, are now badges of honour (which itself has largely gone for a Burton).

A more common line of defence amongst Pretendians has been to reply that they were simply believing what they had been told about who they were by their elders, usually uncles, parents or grandparents. Boyden, for example, responded to his accusers by citing family oral history as the chief evidence for his Indigenous heritage. In other circumstances, this would be regarded as a flimsy defence, but oral history passed down the generations in aboriginal non-literate society, as anecdote or legend, is taken seriously in Canadian law courts. Genealogical stories are one of three categories of oral history the courts decide on as admissible evidence case by case. Evidence for group rights claims or identity claims (with sometimes vast tracts of land or astounding natural resources at stake) can trump evidence from documentation or even well-known history by the appeal to states of affairs or events “from time immemorial”. Moreover, stories of the past are said by some Indigenous peoples to carry incontestable authority. Turpel-Lafond alluded to this when after accusations she was quoted, seemingly still in the persona of an Indigenous descendant: “I was raised not to embarrass, shame or cause harm to families, and not to interfere… Growing up, we did not question biological parentage.” In this increasingly accepted sense of the past, your personal identity can be interpreted as being what you were told you are (or what you are pretending to believe you were told you are). Turpel-Lafond may have had a double persona when she spoke, however: in the non-Indigenous parts of the Anglosphere, my family’s story can become “my story” and then “my truth” — which by definition is unfalsifiable. So one’s race claim could be regarded as one’s own truth.

Another defence often made by friends and colleagues is that good works on behalf of a racial cause make racial identity beside the point. What mattered to one of Dolezal’s NAACP colleagues was not whether she was black or not, but her record in social justice work. It would be uphill work to claim that her blackness could thus remain intact, however, and that her colleagues should have been happy to have her continue to pass herself off as black. Turpel-Lafond’s advocacy on behalf of Indigenous people has been unimpeachable in intention and achievement. Nonetheless, the University of Regina when revoking her honorary degree stated, “her accomplishments are outweighed by the harm inflicted upon Indigenous academics, people and communities when non-Indigenous people misrepresent their Indigenous ancestry.” Krug in her mea culpa wrote: “Intention never matters more than impact.”

Rachel Dolezal has eloquently defended herself otherwise, however, on grounds that are familiar to students of postmodernism. What is unfamiliar is the application of postmodernist articles of faith to race, here and now. Stephen Greenblatt’s influential 1980 study, of the self-remaking of one’s identity and public persona to reflect current cultural requirements, was concerned with England during the 16th and 17th centuries (Renaissance Self-Fashioning). It was applied by other scholars to later periods and societies. Greenblatt’s work became a tributary of what became, through the later importation of French theory, the mainstream postmodernist claim that much of what we thought natural or historical reality was actually a cultural construct of which we needed to become aware. Criticism in the humanities took the chief form of revealing literary works as cultural construction sites; what was being fabricated was almost always in the service of European (notably British), white, male, colonialist, imperialist efforts at control or supremacy.

In our own day, it is a contested orthodoxy that gender is not understood as a natural and immutable given, but as a cultural choice made by the newly empowered self. The same claim for race ought to have predated the gender claim, but it didn’t — perhaps because questions of race and ethnicity are more collectively sensitive, with political and occasionally hazardous resonance. Of Dolezal’s case, Halford Fairchild, Professor of Africana Studies in California, said that because race is tied to identity politics and not biology, she could appear authentically black by identifying as black.

There is an ambiguity in his observation but not in the quoted opinion of sociologist Ann Morning (author of The Nature of Race, 2011). She defended Dolezal: “We’re getting more and more used to the idea that people’s racial affiliation and identity and sense of belonging can change, or can vary, with different circumstances.” Dolezal herself has gone further, stating in 2015 that “challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness”. If so, then why not in principle subversively identify as any race you like? After all, the philosophy of multiculturalism has unwittingly encouraged the multiethnic self. The wife of Alec Baldwin (yoga teacher Hilaria Baldwin née Hillary Hayward-Thomas in Boston) was of no known Hispanic connection, but her talent agency listed her as born in Mallorca. In her tactical retreat, she said, “I’m a mix of many, many, many things.”

When I became a Canadian, the citizenship judge told the assembly of citizen graduands from 22 countries they were not to leave their previous cultures behind. Coming from the divided society of Northern Ireland, I thought that foolish counsel. In partial response to that notion of multiculturalism, more cultural enclaves in the cities naturally developed, once European but now because of the immigration policy of the past thirty-odd years, also non-European. These in turn have become “communities” in the recent potent sense, and they have encouraged the emergence of identity politics.

47 per cent of Indigenous people listed their religion as Christianity

It was exactly thirty years ago that the Canada Council for the Arts decreed that grants would not be given for artistic projects involving ethnicity of which the applicant was not himself or herself a member. So the offence of cultural appropriation was born and spread beyond “the arts community”; the policy was retracted but remains informally stronger than ever in the arts world. Multiculturalism was meant to keep cultural differences alive, not dissolve them for a common good, and the policy and goal are known as diversity. Diversity does not refer to the original ingredients for fusion but rather to multiple distinct identities. Justin Trudeau, whose father was the prime mover of the policy of multiculturalism, took his father’s vision to its logical conclusion when he told the New York Times in 2016 that Canada is a brand-new kind of country with no history in the ordinary sense but rather a “pan-cultural heritage… There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada”. It is “the first post-national state”. He seems to believe he has already successfully decolonised Canada. (The vast province of Francophone Quebec has, however, been encouraged to remain aloof from the diversification imposed on the rest of Canada.)

It would perhaps be odd if some Canadians didn’t internalise and individualise this dogma of diversity. Moreover, the churches, universities and museums now routinely tell white Canadians that their history is reprehensible, even genocidal. Despite its name, the Royal British Columbia Museum has apologised for its own colonial history and systemic racism, and it has launched a decolonisation programme over museum-goers’ objections. The Bishop of British Columbia has lengthily checklisted British colonial sins, denounced her own history and observed that BC churches “are places of worship for diminishing numbers of largely white congregations of privileged folks of British descent” (the demeaning use of “folks” for one’s parishioners is telling). That congregation will soon be gone, she said, presumably so that the church can leave religious belief behind and get on with the essential work of “food banks and warming shelters, community meals and support groups… and affordable housing”. (The irony is that in a nationwide census, 47 per cent of the country’s 1.8 million Indigenous people listed their religion as Christianity, but ideology trumps facts.) There has been some pushback against this ideology in the U.S., Australia and the UK, but only fitfully in Canada and New Zealand. The alternative to fight is flight. Perhaps the Pretendians have chosen flight, into the ranks of those who are now championed, not reviled.


In this imagined multicultural free-for-all, cultural appropriation is still a dire offence. There are now innumerable categories of Canadians with core identities (religious, social, cultural) that must be respected, some by law. The cultural appropriation charge is only levelled against members of what is regarded as the erstwhile Euro-Canadian mainstream, which is guilty of forgetting that it is now meant to be a mere cultural tributary. In British Columbia, the British colonising, settling and developing of the province must now be renounced root and branch. (The logic escapes me since it seems like a sawing of the branch one sits on.) The knock-out accusation made against the Pretendians, by mainly white institutions and organisations that were at first in their corner, is that they are keeping alive British colonialism. Revoking its award to Turpel-Lafond and alluding to the notorious residential schools system for native Canadians, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association stated, “Indigenous identity fraud perpetuates colonial violence and assimilation practices, allowing settlers to shape the future for Indigenous communities while marginalizing Indigenous voices and weakening self-determination.”

Certainly there seems something profoundly and exceptionally wrong in impersonating (with personal profit) a member of those peoples who have genuinely suffered in the past, such as black Americans and Indigenous Canadians. Accusations of colonialism seem too blunt a weapon of recrimination, though. Certainly the Pretendians are “othering” the Indigenous people through impersonation, but “othering” was coined to describe hostile activity. Edward Said attacked what he called “orientalism” on the grounds that 18th and 19th century European representations of the East were very much from the outside and yet were usurpative, a disguised method of hegemony. The Pretendians are ostensibly impersonating First Nations people in admiration, homage, at the very least in “allyship”, as the current word has it. Such admiration is daily encouraged by the Canadian media, the governments and assorted institutions. Pretendians took this prescribed attitude into their physical and mental world.

Like others, Michelle Cyca (Cree Nation) in a wide-ranging article on Pretendians in Maclean’s (September 2022) has blamed the universities and colleges who hired those who proved to be Pretendians for new ways of being colonialist. Responding to the action plan of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, these organisations hastened to Indigenise, meaning at first greatly enlarging Indigenous student intake, adding new courses in Indigenous history and culture, hiring Indigenous faculty and administrators, navigating flexibly around credentials and standards (“lived experience”, as Cyca remarks, is now a relevant credential). Cyca accuses the universities of being hasty, greedy (they compete for federal funding) and competitive in their virtue-signalling. In this febrile atmosphere, those who said they were of the First Nations were hired as such.

One could clearly accuse the federal government and other social sectors as early as one accuses the universities. Not only in universities but also in law circles, Pretendians could flourish. Universities were hasty and careless — probably out of fear of appearing racist if they asked for the same level of documentary proof from potential Indigenous hirees as from other applicants. “Who is Indigenous?” is a question that seems to invite a firm answer (bound up as it is with notions of authenticity and autochthony), with no time for the fluid contrivances of postmodernism or the blithe diversity of multiculturalism. It is all the more pressing since through the Truth and Reconciliation project, Canada is well embarked on the long overdue redress owed its native people who are now belatedly seen with justification as our territorial hosts. Much is at stake, and the ways are largely unknown. Yet proof of Indigenous status for white organisational purposes turns out to be very complicated indeed.

“Aboriginal peoples in Canada who are classified as ‘Status Indians’ are registered under the Indian Act on the Indian Register — a central registry maintained by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Status Indians are issued a status card that contains information about their identity, their band, and their registration number.” Cyca reminds us, however, that there are many Indigenous people with living connections to their community who are unregistered as Status Indians. It was perhaps her community activism and connections that led the head of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs to support Turpel-Lafond when the accusations against her were first aired. Indian identity, we learn, is not verified by genetic ancestry. Joseph Boyden published a defence in Maclean’s, the same magazine that had profiled his uncle, revealing the results of a DNA test showing him to be part Celtic, Native American, Arctic and Jewish. Yet Dr Kim TallBear (Santee Dakota) and other Indigenous commentators have rejected such broad and contestable categories as criteria for indigeneity. It is solely a question of belonging, of “relationality”, of nationality deriving from the phrase “First Nations”.

The tragedy of many Indigenous people is that, as Cyca puts it, “the relationships that constitute Indigenous identity have been deliberately fractured across generations, through residential schools, the Sixties Scoop [the mass removal of Aboriginal children from their families into the child welfare system in the 1960s], and the ongoing overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care”. Nevertheless, connection is the essential component of true Indigenous identity. It is not a dual carriageway, though, despite the importance of “lived experience”: it is a one-way thoroughfare. “I am only Cree,” Cyca says, “because my kin from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation claim me.” There is no such thing as self-identification in Indigenous communities, says TallBear.

The cases of some Pretendians show the existence of contested spaces, however — what look like strips of no-man’s land. Turpel-Lafond is reported to be a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation through her husband, a former vice-chief and tribal chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council. Lisa Meeches, an Ojibway TV host and film-maker, announced she intended to adopt Joseph Boyden as her spiritual brother in a traditional ceremony, thus resolving any issues with his ancestry and safeguarding his fiction from possible cancellation.

The demands of multiculturalism sunder most Canadians from their own history

What will happen when decolonisation’s twin unfolds throughout Canadian society? In the past several years, to “Indigenise” has meant much more than affirmative action. In schools and universities, white educators take “Indigenising” to mean nativising the whole curriculum, not just creating an Indigenous syllabus. It means nativising pedagogy, educational missions, values and goals, redefining our very idea of the university, even of knowledge itself, in the process cutting down to size anything cultural that derives from British and European civilisation. Canadians are now being told that Indigenous “knowledges, methodologies, cultures, sciences” are epistemically the equal of “western science” (which is alleged to be merely a white branch of science), and “western civilization” and must be taught as such. One expert professor in the field who disagreed has been fired. My university colleagues now refer to themselves as “settler scholars” to signal the contingency of their disciplines.

Indigenisation is a holistic project that aims to change Canadian places of education out of recognition; arts and humanities departments function in the meantime like social justice institutes en route to some unknown pedagogical terminus. Cyca criticises the universities for requiring Indigenous staff and students “to comply with the institutional ways of doing things. Our inclusion is always on their terms”. Given the age of western universities, this compliance would seem for many to be a reasonable requirement, unless structural and procedural changes are to be made on grounds of racial exemptions and exceptions. Even more ambitiously, an emerging proposition suggests that the idea and function of a university are somehow to be nativised.

Outside the academy, in law, mapmaking and placenaming, corporate structures, tourism, entertainment, the arts and museums all must to some degree be the object of Indigenisation, the positive twin of the negative task of decolonising. The scale of the project is immense. Billions of dollars are being routed by the federal government to further Indigenising, including the return of huge acreages of unceded land, the transfer of large businesses to Indigenous bodies and the starting up of native-owned business, including tourist enterprises.

The material and economic redress is clearly all to the good and not before time. The limits of redress have not been formulated or debated, however. In time the Indigenous forebears of the land could become the exalted figures of the new past, and the living chiefs the new Canadian royalty in the event of Canada becoming a republic, since Indigenisation implies the recovery (or creation) of a different kind of nobility and pride. Outside of Quebec (which has been quietly de-Anglicising for years but is unlikely to Indigenise; its historic cultural nationalism is Quebec’s raison d’être), decolonisation and Indigenisation are a national project that aims to alter the anatomy of Canada as surely as multiculturalism altered it. Some fusion of the two seems to be the vision of those in power. When the Bishop of British Columbia refers to “this thing we call Canada”, implying its illegitimacy, fragility and transience, one might wonder about the shape of things to come.

In the new multiculturalism, the diverse cultures of Canada would be held together not by the Crown or even by Canadian history (both increasingly ignored and equated with colonialism), but by the retroactive agency of Indigenisation. Until that unfolding, the Canadian self will be suspended by the contradictory demands of intensified multiculturalism between, on the one hand, diverse communities protected by the offence of cultural appropriation and, on the other, the new fluidity of transculturalism and transethnicity, both demands sundering most Canadians from their own history.

Meanwhile, Pretendians are those who try, dishonestly, but in a larger picture almost understandably, to self-decolonise and self-Indigenise inside the Canadian institutions that are pledging to do just that.

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