Canada, in its reconciliation efforts with indigenous peoples, has different programs to support members of these traditionally discriminated communities and the creative sphere is one of those that receives this type of help. However, some artists who do not belong to these groups have taken advantage of it. Several cinematographic organizations express their commitment to fight against this form of identity appropriation. The case of Michelle Latimer has been the most recent.
Latimer, a screenwriter, producer and director, has garnered wide recognition in Canada for her works related to indigenous groups. However, her indigenous roots – underlined by her for years – have been called into question. The CBC released in December that the filmmaker has given different versions in documents and interviews. She claimed to come from Kitigan Zibi, an indigenous reservation in Quebec. However, members of that reserve denied it. She has also pointed out that she grew up in northern Ontario, that is “Algonquian-French-Canadian” and that her mother “belongs to the First Nations”. However, a genealogist concluded that Latimer has two indigenous ancestors, but that they lived in the 17th century; the others were identified by the expert as French Canadians, Scots and Irish.
Michelle Latimer claimed to have a “legitimate connection” to these groups, but she made a mistake by citing the Kitigan Zibi reserve without having previously investigated. Also that she has been identified as “Algonquian-French-Canadian” by the “oral history” she heard in the voice of her grandfather. Also saying that she has hired a genealogist to find all the answers. “My path to reclaiming my history continues to evolve as I learn more about who I am and where I come from. At this stage, until the investigation is completed and verified, I have no reason to doubt what my grandfather told me,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
A few days after the scandal, Latimer resigned as director of the second season of Trickster, a television series broadcast by CBC that focuses on the adventures of a young indigenous man in British Columbia. On January 29, the network announced the cancellation of the show. The National Film Bureau of Canada (NFB), 90th Parallel Productions and producer Jesse Wente have agreed to remove Inconvenient Indian, Latimer’s latest work, from active programming. They made the decision after meeting with indigenous project participants and with the NFB’s indigenous advisory group. “Michelle Latimer’s indigenous identity has been called into question. We respect the importance and complexity of this issue, which is rooted in the historical inequalities and injustices suffered by marginalized communities, and especially indigenous creative communities. That is why we believe that it is not our place to comment,” says Lily Robert, NFB spokesperson. In addition, the filmmaker had to return an award from the Documentary Organization of Canada for her career, including C $ 40,000 in production services.
Mohawk actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs wrote on Twitter: “If you need a genealogist or a DNA test to tell you that you have a little ‘native blood’ then you are not indigenous. This only means that you have some indigenous ancestry”. Devery Jacobs added: “It does not give you the right to speak on behalf of these groups and take advantage of the opportunities reserved for their artists. Michelle Latimer has done just that for the last twenty years.” Latimer’s case is not anecdotal in Canada. It is enough to remember the accusations towards the writers Joseph Boyden and Gwen Benaway for their dubious autochthonous identity.
Filmmaker Tamara Bell, a member of the Haida people, announced in Vancouver on January 19 that she would send a petition to Canadian MPs; seeking that people who falsely identify as indigenous to obtain scholarships, awards and other benefits receive a fine or are sentenced to prison terms. Bell cited as an example a US mechanism that has sanctioned these behaviors since 1990.
Although the Government of Canada has a registry of the members of indigenous groups, access to the supports created specifically for these communities can be done simply by completing a few forms. The reason is that various people do not appear in said registry. A frequent case has been that of some women who married non-indigenous couples and lost their status, although Ottawa launched a program for their re-registration. “There is a gateway for form deception. Furthermore, the regulations on privacy in administrations make it difficult to verify”, comments André Dudemaine, founder and director of Terres en Vues, a Montreal organization whose mandate is the dissemination of indigenous creation in different disciplines.
Experience and community recognition
Dudemaine, a member of the Innu people, continues: “The current discussion is not focused on the essentials: the first nations are not sovereign. The federal government is the one that decides who is indigenous. We do not have that right. The only mechanism is the registry”. Tamara Bell’s initiative has generated weak support, since it would grant Ottawa the power to continue deciding without taking other voices into account, in an issue that not only contemplates roots; also experiences and community recognition.
At the beginning of February, the Indigenous Audiovisual Office and APTN (the television network of indigenous peoples) announced the launch of a series of consultations with personnel from the sector, indigenous leaders and experts. The objective is to create a more effective verification policy when allocating funding or grants. In a statement, these organizations acknowledged that it is a delicate matter for historical and current reasons, but that it also “can cause great damage when those with unconfirmed or controversial connections to their indigenous identity take advantage of spaces, resources and opportunities.” Lily Robert indicates that the NFB is not participating in this process, although she is interested in the conclusions that emerge.
The Imagine Native organization -specialized in the audiovisual field- stated that it will continue to develop policies that take into account the various indigenous groups and experiences, but that these communities should play a primary role when authorizing access to “opportunities and resources destined for mitigate the impacts of Canadian colonialism”. André Dudemaine adds: “It is important to open the discussion with the groups. Don’t just consider genealogy. Lay a basis for discussion. Do not leave things in federal hands.