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Toronto school board should vet claims of staff who self-identify as Indigenous, say former student, parent

There are calls for Canada's largest school board to create a policy that vets the identity of applicants who claim to be Indigenous when they’re applying for teaching roles at Indigenous-focused schools. As it stands now, the board relies on applicants and staff to self-identify.

Toronto District School Board says it's creating a procedure informed by Indigenous communities

An Anishinaabe man wears a blue shirt with his arms crossed and looks at the camera.

A former student and parent of Kâpapâmahchakwêw – Wandering Spirit School in Toronto are calling on Canada's largest school board to create a policy that vets applicants who claim to be Indigenous when they're applying for positions at Indigenous-focused schools or programs.

Michael Peters recently graduated from Wandering Spirit and says in his later years at the school, some students began to take issue with a teacher he says was "claiming to be Indigenous."

"It really impacted the learning of the students and it really impacted the teaching of Indigenous peoples, because if these people aren't Indigenous, how can they really teach through an Indigenous lens?"

As it stands now, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), like many employers, relies on an honour system of self-identification when it comes to those claiming Indigenous identity.

There is no policy or vetting process for those who say they are Indigenous and apply to work at schools like Wandering Spirit that provide an Indigenous-focused education and immerses students in Indigenous culture and traditions.

"The policy is anyone can say they're Indigenous and they have to just listen to them. There's no vetting process," said Deanne Hupfield. Her children have attended Wandering Spirit and her husband, John Hupfield, is also the chair of the school's parent council.

Deanne Hupfield used to work at the TDSB's Urban Indigenous Education Centre, which shares a building with Wandering Spirit, and helps guide the TDSB's curriculum and connects students with Indigenous services.

"It's a growing problem in the Indigenous community where people just self identify and come into our communities and take positions of authority," she said.

TDSB says it's 'developing a procedure'

The TDSB told CBC Toronto it's working on a procedure that would take into consideration a staff member's identity. It also said Wandering Spirit's parent council helps inform the interview questions for those applying to work at the school.

"The Care Givers Circle (Parent Council) at Kâpapâmahchakwêw-Wandering Spirit School have been informing the process. The TDSB is in the early stages of developing a procedure that will be informed by Indigenous communities," the TDSB said in a statement.

According to parent council chair John Hupfield, the principal met with the group to discuss hiring criteria in May 2023. He said the council voiced concerns about staff who self-identified as Indigenous and the impacts this had on children.

"In particular brand new teachers with minimal teaching experience gaining employment at WSS with unclear connections to Indigenous Nations/communities," John Hupfield wrote in a statement to CBC News. "And the administration was open to discussion around our concerns."

He said the council provided input to address one of the interview questions, "but at this stage, the Indigenous community has no control or decision making power over these decisions."

Students questioned identity of some staff

Peters, who is Anishinaabe from Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba, first attended Wandering Spirit in 2017 after his family moved back to Toronto.

Before that, he recalls being the only Indigenous student in his class. He says it was important to him and his mom that he reconnect with his culture, so he enrolled at Wandering Spirit.

"When you're Indigenous and you move into a huge urban area like Toronto it's very difficult to stay connected to your culture," he said.

"After going to Wandering Spirit, I can say that I have definitely reconnected with my culture. I've definitely begun to learn my language, that's a big part. So, the school is helpful in that."

But, as the years went on, Peters says there were fewer Indigenous staff, and he and other students would talk about how they didn't want to attend classes taught by those whose Indigenous identity was in question.

Peters is currently studying to be a teacher with the goal of working at Wandering Spirit. He's set to do a practicum at the school this fall.

He says he hopes more education about Indigenous history, culture and experiences will work to caution non-Indigenous people against claiming an Indigenous identity they don't have.

"I think that will deter a lot more people from wanting to claim that they are us because they will then understand they never had to go through any of this."

Lived experience, cultural connection vital

Deanne Hupfield, who is Anishinaabe from Temagami First Nation, has had five children attend Wandering Spirit and three will be back in the fall.

"They have really amazing Indigenous teachers," she said, noting the school provides a really good cultural education. "They get language every day from an Anishinaabe kokum."

But she's had concerns over the identity of a couple teachers at Wandering Spirit who self-identified as Indigenous.

After communicating with those teachers, she questioned whether they were Indigenous, and if they were, whether they belonged to an Indigenous community and what cultural connections they had.

She says she asked one of the teachers whether they belonged to a particular community, and the teacher replied that they were still learning about their heritage.

"We have these people with no lived experience, no connection to any living Indigenous community and they are leading my Indigenous children."

Deanne Hupfield says her mother was part of the Sixties Scoop and most of her grandparents and great grandparents went to residential schools.

"With that came a lot of generational trauma," she said. "And I had a super hard life because of it."

Though there are non-Indigenous staff at Wandering Spirit, both she and Peters say they don't take issue with that; they are just concerned about those who may be misrepresenting their identity.

WATCH | Report examines harm caused by Indigenous identity fraud:

New report addresses 'poison' of Indigenous identity fraud

10 months ago

Duration 2:00

A new report commissioned by the University of Saskatchewan identifies steps that post-secondary institutions can take to address growing concerns about Indigenous identity fraud.

False claims can harm, Métis lawyer says

Indigenous rights lawyer Jean Teillet estimates there are tens of thousands of people in Canada misrepresenting their Indigenous identity, according to a report she authored in 2022.

"There's no way to be exact about this, so let's just say it's a big problem," she told CBC Toronto. "It's not just these isolated ones that are making the press."

Teillet, who is Métis and Louis Riel's great-grandniece, was commissioned by the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) to write a report, which she titled Indigenous Identity Fraud, in the midst of a scandal at the school surrounding a professor's Indigenous identity.

She says some people take on an Indigenous identity for opportunistic reasons; to get jobs or prestige or to make money. She also says it takes opportunities and platforms away from Indigenous people.

"There's a great deal of harm attached to this," she said. "It's got massive effects on everything that's going on in our educational institutions and in policy that government is forming. And it always seems to work to the disadvantage of Indigenous people."

If someone claims to be Indigenous, Teillet says they must be recognized by the people they're claiming to be a part of. She says even having a small DNA link doesn't automatically allow a person to identify as Indigenous.

"There's no lived experience, no real connection to the culture," she said.

Verification systems in place at some schools

Some Canadian universities, including the U of S and University of Waterloo (UW), have implemented their own verification systems for those applying for Indigenous-specific jobs, scholarships or funding.

In both schools' verification processes, Indigenous communities and governments verify a person's citizenship or membership.

The U of S launched an online portal that allows people to upload proof that they belong to an Indigenous community. According to the university, an example of proof could be a status or citizenship card, though other forms, like an oral history, could be accepted for those without documentation.

At UW, if documentation doesn't exist, an Indigenous-led committee will consider verification requests.

According to Teillet, relying on self-identification alone "is what got us into this mess in all of our institutions, and demanding verification of your identity is the way to get out of it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angelina King

Reporter

Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto's enterprise unit where she covers a wide range of topics. She has a particular interest in crime, justice issues and human interest stories. Angelina started her career in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at angelina.king@cbc.ca or @angelinaaking

    with files from Samantha Juric

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