I was recently asked about Indigenous ancestry.
It was in the context of a number of high-profile cases of misrepresentation of Indigenous identity. This is an important topic that has received significant media attention. I want to share my story directly with the university community as this is a complex topic.
I am not Mi’kmaq. I am not Indigenous. I did not grow up in an Indigenous community. Nor was I raised to learn the ways of Indigenous culture. My family, through my father, is of Mi’kmaw ancestry and heritage. It is a distinction I have been careful to make because it is an important distinction.
My father was always aware of his Mi’kmaw heritage, yet he was taught to be quiet about it.
This ignited in him a passion for genealogy and he spent a decade researching his ancestry. I remember going with him to graveyards to help him document the information on gravestones, even though I wasn’t aware of our Mi’kmaw heritage in my early life. I saw the evidence of his passion and need to understand where our family came from even without knowing exactly why.
As an academic scholar in my 30s, I conducted research on Mi’kmaw family literacy in communities in Atlantic Canada. It was at that point that my father shared with my siblings and I, for the first time, that our ancestors were Mi’kmaq. He asked us to acknowledge our heritage as it was a part of our story, and to do so with the pride that he had not been able to show when he was younger.
When I moved to Regina in 2008, I spent a considerable time with elders at the University of Regina. I often went to them for guidance. I remember sharing my father’s story with an elder who encouraged me to acknowledge my Mi’kmaw ancestry at every opportunity. She said that my ancestors were invisible in Canada’s history and I had an obligation to make them visible.
My oldest brother is passionate about our heritage. Our family lived close to the Bras d’Or lakes in Cape Breton and he connected with a community there to learn more. Based on our genealogy, our family was registered as members of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation, a band that is not federally recognized and has been working toward status for many years. I received a membership card in the mail. This was all part of our journey to understand our heritage and what it meant. Over time I became uncomfortable with that membership as I was not raised in the community or culture, so I discontinued it.
All of this encouraged me to promote indigenization when I was president of the University of Regina and to work closely with First Nations communities. At the time, First Nations University was a Federated College of the University of Regina. When they ran into difficulty, there was no question that I, along with others, would campaign for their survival. They did survive and are now thriving. I believe that our past does impact the causes we work to support.
Of course, when I became president of Memorial University, I brought my passion for indigenization with me. I’m proud of the work that we have done and will continue to do.
The last number of decades have been an important learning experience, and is a journey that I am still on. Falsely claiming Indigenous identity is categorically wrong and harms Indigenous people. That is why I make the distinction I do about my heritage. I felt I was always very clear. I recognize the changing context of the world we live in, and will be more cognizant in the future of when and how I share information about my heritage and strive to make the distinction even clearer. There are many complexities in identity, especially when you want to honour your family’s past without shame and recognize your lived experience, while respecting the intricacies and implications so much broader than a single individual or family. I know this is a journey many are on, and one where we are all still learning.