Dr. Carrie Bourassa has been outed for claiming an Indigenous ancestry. Photo from University of Saskatchewan

Cathy Majtenyi: Rejecting ancestry creates dangerous path

  • November 12, 2021

It was a shocking revelation. A recent CBC investigation revealed that Dr. Carrie Bourassa, one of Canada’s leading Indigenous health researchers, is actually of Eastern European descent.

Bourassa, a University of Saskatchewan professor and the scientific director of the Indigenous health arm of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), is now on indefinite leave from both positions.

For two decades, Bourassa had repeatedly claimed to be Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit, describing with great emotion her early life of racism and hardship and the ways she had discovered her Indigenous roots.

But suspicions over her stories grew. Her colleagues examined Bourassa’s genealogical records, which led to formal complaints being filed with the University of Saskatchewan and CIHR that were initially dismissed.

The CBC examined passenger manifests, census records and other documents and conducted interviews with family members. These documents, and the genealogical records, show that Bourassa’s ancestors are of Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakian descent.

It’s a Canadian version of a similar American scandal. In 2015, it was revealed that Rachel Dolezal, a highly respected academic, chair of the Police Ombudsman Commission in Spokane, Wash., and former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter president, was not Black as she had claimed.

Her parents, of primarily German, Czech and Swedish origin, publicly stated that Dolezal is white. Dolezal eventually admitted she has white parents but says she identifies as being Black.

In an interview about her 2017 memoir, Dolezal calls herself a “trans-black woman,” arguing race is fluid and a social construct rather than being biologically based.

Bourassa similarly challenges the biological aspect of ancestry. In her statement denying the CBC report, she says “blood quantums are not our way” and explains she is Métis by way of a “custom adoption” by Clifford Larocque following the passing of her grandfather.

Larocque was a Métis friend of her grandfather’s. While acceptance by Indigenous communities is necessary to establish Indigenous identity, it’s unclear that this happened in Bourassa’s case.

At this point, it’s difficult to tell what motivated Bourassa to make her claims of Indigenous ancestry. One can only surmise it enabled her to pursue particular opportunities, professionally and personally.

Indeed, her deception is devastating to Indigenous colleagues and professionals, who could have received those opportunities. It also places a lot of pressure on Indigenous peoples to “prove” themselves and their identities in a society that harbours racist attitudes and practices towards them.

Bourassa’s motivations are likely much more nuanced. Perhaps, like Dolezal, she could relate to the culture and experiences of Indigenous peoples on such a profound level that she truly feels that she herself has become Indigenous.

It’s not wrong to be deeply immersed in another culture and to be an ally, especially in fighting against social injustice, as long as one is honest about one’s own heritage and doesn’t appropriate someone else’s heritage.

Or perhaps in the very beginning, Bourassa knowingly or unknowingly misconstrued certain comments so that she could fulfil a deep desire to be Métis, which over the years grew to include Anishinaabe and Tlingit identities. Through her passionate storytelling, it’s clear that the lie became the truth in her mind, or that her mind was unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood.

Dolezal’s motivations have become more clear in the six years that have passed since the initial revelation. In her memoir interview, Dolezal makes it very clear that to her, race is a choice: “I was born white, but I have an authentic Black identity,” she says. “And there’s a Black and white divide and I stand unapologetically on the Black side of that divide with my own internal sense of self and my values.”

The belief that race and genealogy can be ignored or transcended in the pursuit of what we want is a dangerous way of thinking.

God created us in His own image to be with a particular family lineage and cultural heritage for His purposes. It dishonours Him when we reject our ancestry for one that we create for our own pleasure or advancement. It also dishonours the people whose heritage we are claiming or appropriating. It dishonours our amazing ancestors who came before us and who sacrificed so much in order for us to have a good life.

But worse of all, we start to play God when we reject such basics as our genealogy and heritage. The supremacy of God is challenged when we become the creator. We hurt others and, in the end, ourselves.

(Majtenyi is a pubic relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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