Memorial University President Vianne Timmons says she has always been clear that she has Mi'kmaw ancestry, or heritage, and that she's not Mi'kmaw. But in a settler colonial society like Canada's, claiming Indigenous ancestry in professional biographies or on resumes is anything but clear, says Cree journalist Michelle Cyca.

In a new article for The Walrus, Cyca argues that for settlers Indigenous ancestry is "an accessory" that "offers people like Timmons an advantage over both non-Indigenous and Indigenous people: the insinuation of having overcome an obstacle that was never in their way. The cumulative effect is an impression of Indigeneity as a marketable asset, divorced from its historical, political, and cultural significance. The essential power structure of whiteness remains intact, and the sprinkle of artificially flavoured Indigeneity covers up the bad taste of settler guilt."

In Episode 5, we speak with Cyca about the Vianne Timmons scandal, and about race-shifting more broadly.

Whose responsibility is it to keep race-shifters in check? And how should people respond when they are questioned about their identity?

That and more in "Vianne Timmons and the Race-Shifting Conundrum".

Read Michelle Cyca's full article "Why Are More People Claiming Indigenous Ancestry?" in The Walrus.

Listen to Episode 4 of berrygrounds: "Ktaqmkuk — a personal story of Mi’kmaw ancestry, identity & belonging"

Read Justin Brake's 2021 essay "KTAQMKUK" in Maisonneuve magazine.

Songs Synapse, Liturgy of the Street, and Diaphanous courtesy Shane Ivers of Silverman Sound Studios.

Creators & Guests

Justin Brake
He/him. Journalist. Settler. Future ancestor. Born 338 ppm.

What is berrygrounds?

With an eye to power, host Justin Brake takes a closer look at key issues facing Newfoundland and Labrador. A brand new podcast from The Independent.

JUSTIN BRAKE: Welcome to berrygrounds. I’m Justin Brake.

When CBC dropped its story on Vianne Timmons, I got scooped. I began looking into the matter in early January, after hearing from several people in the university community who were concerned about the ways the Memorial president had positioned herself in relation to an Indigenous ancestor. Later that month the university told me in a very short email that Timmons has “indicated she has Mi’kmaq heritage”.

Given Timmons had in fact identified as a member of a First Nation — albeit not a real one — I expected more of an explanation. Especially in the post-Boyden era we’re in, where there’s extensive and ongoing public discourse around Indigenous identity and race-shifting. The Joseph Boyden story broke in 2016. Since then we’ve had Michelle Latimer. Carrie Bourassa. And Mary-Ellen Turpel Lafond, to name just a few of the high profile cases that have shown us how widespread and harmful self-Indigenization and race-shifting are. Each expose has prompted extensive public discussions that have given those making dubious claims of Indigeneity plenty of time to reflect more deeply — and act.

Vianne Timmons told CBC she has “always been very careful about saying [she] is of Indigenous heritage”. So how is it that the recent news coverage has sparked anger and disappointment right across the country? Some are calling for Timmons’ resignation, including Mi’kmaw lawyer and professor Pam Palmater, who has called race-shifting a “new wave of colonization”. Timmons — who earns upward of a half million dollars per year — was given six-weeks paid leave so that Memorial’s Office of Indigenous Affairs could strike a roundtable of Indigenous community leaders to discuss the situation. That office — which works under and advises the president — has asked the rest of us to step back.

“Indigenous identity and Indigenous ancestry are issues that can be complex and nuanced,” they said in a March 8 statement. “The conversations around these issues are ones that must be led by Indigenous people. As such, the Office of Indigenous Affairs will be leading conversations on the matter. We respectfully ask that the university community leave space for us to gather and discuss.”

It seems like a fair request. But there is clear unease among faculty and students. Make space for Indigenous people to discuss? Of course! But I’ve also heard from members of the MUN community who are troubled by the process that’s unfolding. They’re concerned for the Indigenous Affairs Office staff, who are leading a process that could end or save their boss’s career. It’s a terrible situation to be put in. Powerful white people often escape from crises unscathed. If that happens with Timmons, one MUNL employee told me, Memorial University risks a serious blow to its credibility. Some are also worried about their own complicity in the matter if they don't hold Timmons accountable.

I interviewed three people for this episode. All are Indigenous. The two guests with local academic and community connections withdrew, however. One feared potential community repercussions for their family. The other feared repercussions at work. That's when I realized how deep the fear runs at Memorial University for speaking out against senior administration. And it’s not unfounded. Last year Memorial University punished student activist Matthew Barter — who is not Indigenous — after he held a silent protest at a government announcement on campus in December 2021. Barter routinely posts stories, access to information requests and photo essays on his blog that are critical of MUNL. He believes he has been unfairly targeted by the university and has both taken them to court and filed a complaint with the NL Human Rights Commission. So it’s not unreasonable that some might see Barter’s case as a warning of what could happen should they challenge power at the university.

The guest we will hear from today is not from Newfoundland or Labrador, has no ties to Memorial University. And — she’s a journalist who has written about the Vianne Timmons scandal. Before we get into this though, let’s be clear on two words we’ll be using a fair bit: Race-shifting and self-Indigenization. They are typically used synonymously and refer to the growing phenomenon of mostly white settlers who seek out — or manufacture — a distant Indigenous ancestor in order to self-identify as Indigenous today. As several researchers who’ve studied race-shifting movements have pointed out, many (maybe even most) race-shifters in fact believe they are Indigenous and are not necessarily being dishonest or deceptive. But it’s happening all across Canada and the U.S. — particularly in the Eastern regions, where hundreds of thousands of settlers, in recent years, have begun moving to Metis or Mi’kmaw identities. In episode 4, I speak about my own involvement in this movement. I’ll share the link to that episode in the show notes — and to the original essay I wrote for Maisonneuve Magazine in 2021.

Five days before the CBC investigation was published, I was offered an interview with Vianne Timmons. I needed time to do research and prepare questions, so I suggested some potential dates, not knowing the CBC story was coming. Then it dropped. And then, so did the offer of an interview. It felt like Timmons and MUNL may have been trying to get ahead of the story. Timmons didn’t need me, though. On March 7, a day before the CBC story, she used the Memorial University Gazette to get her message out. The title of her statement? “Indigenous identity is complex.” Timmons’ case rests on a distinction she makes between ancestry and identity.

“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,” she writes. “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.”
But on her resume, from 2011 until at least 2018, Timmons claimed she was a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation — which is not actually a First Nation. Nor is it recognized by the federal government. Most importantly? It’s not recognized by the Mi’kmaw Nation.

Timmons goes on to explain that in her 30s, her father disclosed to her that they had Mi’kmaw ancestors, that he was “taught to be quiet about it,” and that he wanted her and her siblings to proudly “acknowledge their heritage”. She also references an unnamed “Elder” who, during Timmons’ time as president of the University of Regina, encouraged her to “acknowledge [her] Mi’kmaw ancestry at every opportunity.” She brings her brother into the story, too, saying he is “passionate about our heritage,” and that he connected with a community in Nova Scotia to learn more. Then, “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,” she says.

“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.”

As I read Timmons’ responses to the investigation — some things felt familiar. Like Timmons, I had others telling me I had Mi’kmaw ancestry. And that, I was told, made me eligible for membership in the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation here in Newfoundland. But it was my fault — no one else’s — that I went along with it for a time. My mistake was accepting the new narrative in my family that having Mi’kmaw ancestry entitled us to begin identifying as Mi’kmaw. And to uncritically accepting the lore that justified that narrative. My family’s application to Qalipu was accepted and I was given Indian status in 2011. By that time though, I’d begun questioning and never sent off for my status card. I later withdrew from the process and my status was revoked in 2017. The point is though, I shouldn’t have done anything without first understanding my family history and without considering the consequences of my actions for the wider Mi’kmaq Nation.

Like me, Vianne Timmons had family members and Indigenous people encouraging her to embrace and be proud of her ancestry or heritage. She even may have had Indigenous people tell her she’s Indigenous and has the right to identify as Mi’kmaw. But citing those people without doing more to make herself accountable to the People and communities she has claimed connection to. That can't be the right path forward.

The Timmons story caught the attention of Cree journalist Michelle Cyca, who wrote an article for The Walrus last week. It’s titled: “Why Are More People Claiming Indigenous Ancestry? New controversies represent an increasingly popular pastime: grasping at the furthest branches of a family tree in search of an Indigenous ancestor.”

In it, Cyca explains why claiming Indigenous ancestry in professional resumes, bios, and the like, is harmful. Cyca is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6 territory. She joins us today from Vancouver. Michelle, it’s great to have you with us.

MICHELLE CYCA: It’s great to be here.

JUSTIN BRAKE: In your article, you say that as a long-time advocate for Indigenization in academia, Timmons would know the difference between ancestry and identity. But also that she would presumably know that many Canadians don't understand the difference and would therefore “draw their own conclusions based on her embrace of this biographical detail.”

Timmons says she has always been clear. You're saying that the ways she has connected herself to Mi’kmaw people and communities is more ambiguous than clear, since many Canadians don't know the difference. Can you explain?

MICHELLE CYCA: Yeah, I think Timmons is a pretty interesting example of this phenomenon because by her own admission, in her CBC interview, she talks about how she was working in Mi’kmaw communities for many years. She's worked in academia. She's been an advocate for Indigenization. So she's very well versed in Indigenous identity, and what institutions like universities are trying to do when they attempt to Indigenize. So she's not someone who's coming to it with a really entry level understanding of Indigenous identity. And I think that's a significant factor. You know, she was in her late 30s when she learned this about her family. At that point she'd worked in Mi’kmaw communities for many years. And so I think that's important context because there is this really broad misunderstanding, I think, among a lot of Canadians about how Indigenous identity works, which is that it's not something that's really explicitly connected to a First Nation or an Indigenous nation, but that it's something that you can discover about yourself that exists in your personal family ancestry, in your family tree. And I think that's kind of the damaging misunderstanding that needs to be combated and that I think someone like Vianne Timmons would know is a common misperception.

So you know, people who discover that they have an Indigenous ancestor from 300 years ago and start identifying as Indigenous, even though they have no ties to a living First Nation or the Metis nation, even though they don't know what nation their ancestor belonged to — they don't have political or community relationships. So it's divorcing that identity from its political context, from its community context. It's quite a neoliberal understanding of indigenous identity, and I think to a casual reader who reads that someone has Mi’kmaw ancestry, they don't know that that's different from saying you have Mi’kmaw citizenship. I think those concepts have just become so abstracted in the way a lot of people talk about this.

So I can see how someone would make a mistake, or misunderstand it or confuse those terms and think they're synonymous. But Timmons wouldn't make that mistake. You know, she's someone who knew the distinctions and it's clear in her CBC interview, she knew them really well. She has a very well constructed defense and an explanation for her behavior. So I do think it's necessary, you know, to dig in a little more to how she positioned herself. It's clear that she was quite deliberate about a lot of her framing around her identity.

JUSTIN BRAKE: There’s another similarity between Timmons’ story and those of others who’ve been interrogated over false or exaggerated Indigenous ancestry. When pressed to explain how she came to identify as a person of Mi’kmaw ancestry, Timmons brings several other people into her story. She doesn’t explicitly blame them for leading her down a contentious path. But she does create an air of innocence around major points in her journey. She talks about how her father asked her and her siblings not to be ashamed of their Mi’kmaw ancestry, because he was raised that way. Then she introduces her brother, who she seems to suggest signed her up for membership in the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation — which again, isn’t a First Nation at all.

Then Timmons introduces an unnamed Elder or Elders — it’s not clear how many — who she says she consulted with before accepting the 2019 Indspire Award for education. Of one of the Elders, Timmons said: “She was very clear that by accepting it, I was acknowledging the work that was done, but also acknowledging my ancestors. So I was not comfortable at first taking it until I consulted with the elders.”
Timmons told CBC she had informed an Elder that her ancestor was alive in the 1600s.

Michelle: people accused of race-shifting often talk about the roles other people had in their embracement of Indigeneity. What do you make of this?

MICHELLE CYCA: There's a few interesting things about that. I mean, you do often hear people talk about Elders or The Elders in this very general way, and again, I think, a lot of people are looking for acceptance. I think it's possible for anyone to find someone who will validate their story. I'm not sure that's what Timmons is doing. But to say I did this because an Elder gave me permission, is a way of shifting that responsibility. I think that there are a tremendous number of Elders, especially elders who did grow up with a really strong lived experience of enduring that shame and the trauma of living through an era where being Indigenous was seen as shameful — they do come to this with a lot of compassion and they are encouraging people to reconnect, to find their families, you know, not to live in shame that is different from accepting accolades or positions.

I think the way reconnection is described in relation to professional roles is so fascinating because it's not a form of reconnection to take a job for an Indigenous person and say, that's your reconnection. You know, reconnection is about finding your family and community. And so I always find it bizarre in these stories when people say, well, I'm reconnecting, but you know, as I'm on that path, I've also applied for this grant or taken this job. So that's an interesting element.

I also think that that narrative around shame is troubling. It is to me an appropriation of an experience that doesn't seem to belong to her family. The shame that a lot of Indigenous people feel around their identities is a product of being put in these systems of forcible assimilation like residential schools, being part of the Sixties Scoop generation where they were adopted into families who held pretty racist beliefs about Indigenous people. It's a kind of trauma, and it's really different from somebody discovering an ancestor in their family tree and, you know, maybe being embarrassed about it or not seeing value in it. The way millions of people are now seeing those ancestors as, as interesting and maybe valuable assess. I think that, you know, her father's shame at discovering this ancestor seems confusing to me. Because by all accounts he lived his life as a settler. He was recognized as a settler. It's not his shame, it's not something that he had to embody or live with or experienced, you know, racism or discrimination directed at him.
So I see in a lot of these narratives around race-shifting, not just an appropriation of Indigenous identity, but using these kinds of Indigenous trauma to explain people's own relationship to that identity. It's borrowing that trauma, and I think that's harmful too.

JUSTIN BRAKE: Despite her withdrawal from the Bras d’Or group in Nova Scotia and removing that reference from her CV, Timmons continued to publicly identify with her Mi’kmaw ancestors. CBC reported that during an event on leadership in November 2020, Timmons claimed her “great-great grandmother was from Conne River,” that her name was “Marie Therese Benoit” — “and, you know, so I’m of Mi’kmaw ancestry,” she said. CBC says it verified Timmons’ genealogy, and that Timmons misrepresented who her ancestor was. The name of her ancestor was in fact Marie Marguerite Benoit, not Marie Therese Benoit.
And she was her third great-grandmother, not her second. Michelle — you write that when Timmons began identifying as Mi’kmkaw-ish, “the barriers faced by many Indigenous people—the intergenerational trauma of residential schools, the socio-economic disparities, the racism and discrimination—did not apply to her.

“For her, and for others who stumble on a long-ago ancestor,” you say, “being Indigenous is not an inhabited identity; it is an accessory that one can take on and put away as easily as you might delete a line from your CV.” I mean, this is so on the nose that my face still hurts from reading it a few days ago. So let me share just one more paragraph with our listeners:

“As our institutions seek to diversify in the most superficial sense of the word, that accessory offers people like Timmons an advantage over both non-Indigenous and Indigenous people: the insinuation of having overcome an obstacle that was never in their way. The cumulative effect is an impression of Indigeneity as a marketable asset, divorced from its historical, political, and cultural significance. The essential power structure of whiteness remains intact, and the sprinkle of artificially flavoured Indigeneity covers up the bad taste of settler guilt."

As white settlers with some Indigenous ancestry, we didn’t inherit the identity of an Indigenous person, or all of the trauma that comes with centuries of colonial violence. We can just add that line to our bios and even to our CVs — and bam, we now have something that looks good to potential employers. Something that universities and other institutions can explicitly or subtly count as part of their public image of Indigenization, or diversification. When people from the Memorial University community approached me to share their concerns about Vianne Timmons, some said they didn’t want to speak publicly about it because they are not Indigenous and they didn’t think it was their place.

Michelle, whose responsibility is it to keep race-shifting in check?

MICHELLE CYCA: I think a big part of this responsibility falls on the institutions that have not created this problem but provided the mechanism for people to monetize these claims and profit from them. So, I mean, the tradition of claiming Indigenous ancestry, predates these race-shifting scandals that have really grabbed headlines for the last seven years. It’s a pretty timeless practice. I mean, I think most Indigenous people, and probably a lot of non-Indigenous people, are familiar with talking to somebody who says that they have, you know, an Indigenous great-grandma, or they heard that they were part Indigenous. It's a really common piece of family lore.

It's a big part of the Canadian and the American imagination about identity. But you didn't used to be able to do anything with those claims. I don't think they were necessarily harmless even then, but you know, in the post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission era, there is this pressure on institutions to Indigenize, to bring in Indigenous people to create positions for Indigenous people. And a challenge, especially a challenge in academia, is that there aren't a lot of Indigenous people to hire sometimes. They've been marginalized from the academy for so long. So you know, Indigenous people are underrepresented in graduate programs and PhD programs as faculty and when everybody is trying to hire at once, there's a supply issue.

And so I think that institutions had very loose standards because they all wanted to have good numbers. You know, they want to demonstrate that they're hiring Indigenous people. I think they're incentivized to do that because a lot of research funding or grants that universities also rely on as revenue streams, prioritize projects that have Indigenous people involved as researchers or investigators.

So I think for a university, if they can hire someone who checks that, often they're not really concerned about anything beyond the box-checking, and that's a problem. We've treated Indigenous identity as a qualification for jobs, but we haven't even applied the same kind of rigor as other qualifications. You know, if you applied for a job that required you to have an academic credential, presumably the institution would care if you did. But they haven't applied that scrutiny to Indigenous identity, which is, you know, a big reason why sometimes they're hiring people into roles where they're supposed to be teaching about Indigenous history or Indigenous culture.

And if you're hiring someone who doesn't really have that background, then what are they teaching people? What's the validity of that? That's an enormous problem, and it's a problem created by institutions. So now they're in a bind because they know that they have a lot of these people in their walls, like within the institution, teaching in senior positions, and they don't have mechanisms to get them out.
So that's an institutional problem. That's where I think it has to be the responsibility of the institution because Indigenous people can't fix this problem themselves.

The most effective mechanism for grazing this issue has been media reporting. So far, pretty much every person who's been ousted from a role, it's come after a media expose, but that's not a feasible way to address this problem. There can't be, you know, a really labour and resource-intensive CBC investigation for every single person because there's just too many of them. And so, you know, I think it's often said that this is not an Indigenous problem. This is a problem of settler colonialism. It's not a problem created by Indigenous communities. You know, the call is not coming from inside our houses, and I think that the institutions and the institutional leaders have to deal with it. And I do think that there's sometimes an abdication of that responsibility when institutional leadership will say, well, we really wanna wait and hear from the Indigenous community. Or, there's a lot of different opinions among the Indigenous community about how to deal with this. We need some time to reflect. We need to, you know, convene a panel or an advisory committee before we can do anything. And to me that just seems like a form of paralysis. It's a reluctance to actually have to figure out a process.

Pam Palmeter gave a great interview to the CBC after the Timmons story came out, and she had a lot of really clear suggestions for things that could be done. Now, you know, there are actions that can be taken, but I think when this problem is framed as something that Indigenous people need to fix, which reinforces I think the idea that this is some kind of indigenous community in-fighting and not just another form of assimilation that's being imposed on Indigenous communities — it's a way for institutions to step back and say, well, you know, we just have to wait. We have to let someone else tell us what to do. It's a refusal to acknowledge that they have really created a huge proportion of these cases through their own processes and through their incentives.

JUSTIN BRAKE: We here in Newfoundland and Labrador live in a province where just a few short years ago, more than 100,000 people — myself included — applied for Indian status and membership in Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. Something like a quarter of those people were accepted, and others have launched lawsuits in their effort to get status. None of this was done with the consent of the Mi’kmaq Nation. Mi’kmaw identity and citizenship are being determined by Canadian courts. Mi’kmaw leaders from outside the province have said that it threatens their Nation’s sovereignty and self-determination.

Michelle — you address something in your article that I think would benefit us all here in Newfoundland and Labrador to think about. You say Timmons’ “incorporation of [her Mi’kmaw] ancestry into her CV is framed purely as an act of reclamation and healing.” To right historical wrongs of the past, settler Canadians are now — en masse here and elsewhere — searching for Indigenous ancestors, embracing what they believe to be authentic Indigenous identities, and then calling it reclamation. But then we start taking resources and occupying spaces intended for Indigenous people.

When Vianne Timmons announced she would be taking paid leave, she said that “any action I have taken in sharing my story or promoting indigenization in my professional roles was always undertaken in a spirit of reconciliation, curiosity and continued learning and respect for Indigenous Peoples.” You end your article addressing that very sentiment: “That [Timmons] sees her appropriation as an act of allyship is precisely the problem. That so many other Canadians are doing the same is a catastrophe. It will lead us to a future where Indigenous people are not just excluded but erased.”

What advice do you have for settlers who discover they have Indigenous ancestry and want to be an ally in reconciliation or in undoing the harms of colonization?

MICHELLE CYCA: I think that it would help people to approach this, not from a position of identity, but of thinking about citizenship. First Nations are sovereign entities. They have distinct histories. They have distinct legal standing, and you know, to claim that any group of people with a distant connection to Indigenous ancestry who can form a collective and start calling themselves a First Nation is the same thing, is really harmful. I mean, I think this is where it helps to step back and look past the individual claims and individual stories to their collective impact. On the surface, somebody saying, 'I found out I have an Anishinaabe ancestor. Isn't that amazing? I'm so thrilled. I'm gonna learn all about this new culture, this culture that's new to me.' It doesn't sound so bad, but when you have tens of thousands of people doing that and you know, banding together saying, well, why don't we have access to Treaty rights? Why don't we get those benefits? Why can't we apply for these jobs that are meant for Indigenous people? It really is no different from assimilation except instead of trying to get Indigenous people to assimilate into Canadian society, Canadian society is just trying to assimilate into Indigenous society. It's diluting Indigeneity, the same way with the same goal, which is getting to a point where you can say, well, what's the difference? There's no difference. I'm Indigenous. You're Indigenous. We're all Indigenous. We don't need these rights. We don't need these Nations. We don't need to recognize these histories.

It's all the same thing and that's very alarming. And that is what a lot of these groups, these nations that have sprung up, are trying to do. We can see this in court challenges in Ontario and Quebec, where these sort of self-declared nations are really fighting for land and land rights, and access to resources, hunting rights, and fishing rights. The goal is to have what they see, you know, what should belong to them, what they think Indigenous people have. And so when somebody discovers this ancestry, I mean, I think if you're signing up to one of those groups, if you're paying a membership fee to get a card that says you're Metis, or that you're a part of a band, you are participating in a movement that is seeking to erode Indigenous sovereignty. There's no other way to look at it. You're trying to delegitimize those nations and their rights and I think that we need to not see it as a neutral act or as a personal act because Indigeneity is not just personal — like, it's part of your personal history, your personal identity, your family relationships, but it's specific to the nation and the people that you belong to.

And you can't separate those concepts when you talk about being Indigenous. And I think that's so important for people to understand. You know, you're not Indigenous in isolation. You're always Indigenous in relation to people. So what is the relationality that you're claiming? What is your position?

JUSTIN BRAKE: Newfoundland has seen a proliferation of self-identified Mi’kmaw people since the creation of Qalipu First Nation, and in this very large community there are no doubt folks who were quick to embrace their new identity and display that in very visible and public ways. Artists. Educators. Even band leaders. And I think, what if they have dubious claims of Indigeneity and then figure out after taking up resources for Indigenous people, or after publicly identifying as Indigenous? Does that make it harder for them to change course and try to undo the harm their own self-Indigenization may have caused? Nobody wants to be in the race-shifting spotlight, even if their move to an Indigenous identity was uninformed and they meant no harm.

MICHELLE CYCA: Something I think about a lot is how some of this phenomenon is really rooted in settler shame and how, I think, a lot of people do embrace this identity because they feel guilt about colonialization. And, you know, if they can identify with Indigenous people, it's a way of separating themselves, I guess, from that legacy. And I worry that people read things like my Walrus article, and they just feel more shame and more defensiveness. Like, I think it's important not to make people feel defensive or feel so afraid of doing or saying something wrong. I wish people could just discover that they have an Indigenous ancestor and say, oh, look at that — I have an Indigenous ancestor, but that doesn't make me Indigenous. That defensiveness, I think, is a challenge. Nobody wants to feel like a bad person. Nobody wants to think they're doing a bad thing. Nobody wants to think they're hurting Indigenous people. And I think that's just why the education piece is really key, like thinking about these actions and their consequences and where they're likely to lead.

I wish there was more of an off-ramp for people in terms of these claims. You know, something I think about is that we haven't really seen anyone resurface after being outed as a Pretendian and share, you know, maybe how they've come to rethink their identity or their claims and how they're trying to make amends or restore any damage they might have caused. And I really would love to see how people can move forward from making this kind of claim and then maybe understanding why it's harmful and backing down from it. I don't think that we've seen that model yet, and I think that is because there's so much shame tied up in this topic for people.

JUSTIN BRAKE: So how should folks respond when they're publicly questioned or in the worst case scenario, called out over their indigeneity or over their self-identification as an indigenous person?

MICHELLE CYCA: Well, I feel very well positioned to answer this because I am a very white presenting person and I've thought about it a lot. I mean, I think there's two dimensions to that. One is that, I think we do need to think about how racialization affects Indigenous people. So visibly Indigenous people do face discrimination and racism that is based on how they look, and that doesn't happen to white-presenting Indigenous people. So to conflate those experiences is, you know, to dismiss the fact that white supremacy is also present in how Indigenous people experience the world, is harmful. It's really harmful. Celeste Pedri-Spade has written really well about this — that we can't really talk about race-shifting and how it functions without talking about whiteness.

As for how white presenting Indigenous people should talk about their claims if they're questioned — I think that's an interesting question because a lot of the people who've been accused of race-shifting have used, I think, a very interesting defense, which is that it's somehow rude or invasive to ask them about their family or their family history. Michelle Latimer said that she should have the right to privacy, I think, around her family history, and I think that's created this perception that somehow it's invasive or it's just not done to ask people who their family are or where they come from, and that's never been my experience. So I find that surprising because it is really common when you meet Indigenous people or when Indigenous people meet each other to ask who their family is, where they're from, you know, who their grandma is, what their family names are.

It's not considered an invasive question. It's a way that we get to know each other. It's a pretty standard greeting. And so, even though I look very white—I have very fair skin, I get crazy sunburns in the summer—I don't find that question invasive because it's something I can answer. Like I know who my family is, I can tell you who my grandmother is and who her grandmother was. When I meet other people from Muskeg Lake, it's pretty easy for us to piece together our connections. It's never made me feel like I don't belong in that community because I do know who my family is. And I know that's a privilege. Not everybody has that family history, but that's a different thing than saying, you know, we shouldn't be able to talk about it.

JUSTIN BRAKE: That’s just about it for today. There is so much more to talk about — and we will, on berrygrounds. Before we go, an update from Indspire — the organization whose annual awards, according to their website, “represent the highest honour the Indigenous community bestows upon its own people.”
Though the organization didn’t respond to CBC’s request for comment, they did reply to berrygrounds.
In February, a spokesperson told me on the issue of Vianne Timmons’ identity claims that they “reviewed the records of the 2019 Indspire Awards nomination process and are satisfied with what we have seen.”
They further said they have “an annual process for reviewing Indspire Award nominations which involves a set of criteria to determine eligibility, and this process was followed in 2019 when Dr. Timmons received her Indspire Award.

“The Indspire Awards nomination process is under continual review to ensure that we receive the most up-to-date information about potential Awards candidates in order to make appropriate decisions.”
When I asked if they would share their evolving criteria, they didn’t respond. At the time of recording this episode, Indspire’s website STILL identified Vianne Timmons as “Mi’kmaq” from Nova Scotia.

Thank you to our guest today, Michelle Cyca. You can check out her article at And you can follow her work, where she has just joined their pod as an editor focusing on Indigenous-led conservation. You can find me, Justin Brake, on twitter @berrygrounds. And you can reach me at

The Independent is largely supported by readers and listeners like you. On April 1 the Indy will hold its annual Gala fundraiser at The Lantern in St. John’s. Hosted by none other than the 2015 Canada’s Smartest Person Champ, Katy Warren, the event will feature a silent auction, snacks, a cash bar, music from DJ Hearnia — and of course the dancing that will undoubtedly ensue. Check out for more information.

I’m Justin Brake — thanks for listening.