The Importance of Moving Beyond Self-Identification: Indigenous Identity Verification in Canadian Educational Institutions

In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report and 94 Calls to Action, an increased (and much-needed) emphasis on curriculum indigenization and Indigenous-specific hiring practices have led to increased Indigenous faculty and subject-matter representation within Canadian colleges and universities. While this movement is positive, institutional hiring processes have largely taken shape without adequate safeguards to assess the validity of a person’s claims to Indigeneity. As a result, we have witnessed a noticeable uptick in scandals and controversies regarding “fraudsters” who make false claims to Indigenous identity to gain material advantage in the hiring process or otherwise, with several high-profile Indigenous fraud disputes garnering significant national attention in the news.[1]See e.g.: … Continue reading Not only are these fraudulent claims morally reprehensible (and sometimes illegal), but the gains associated with their wrongdoing have cost real Indigenous people—both as job applicants and as students—valuable opportunities with respect to representation, advancement, education, and quality of life within academic settings; an especially painful irony given the restorative spirit animating the Calls to Action.

Recognizing the trend in academic institutions to develop and implement Indigenous identity verification processes, JFK Law has surveyed 24 colleges and universities across Canada to ascertain whether and how Indigenous identity verification initiatives are taking shape.

Overview of JFK’s Survey

Just over half of the 24 universities and colleges we canvassed are actively taking steps to implement Indigenous verification policies and practices, with the majority of these institutions currently undertaking initial engagement actions. While several well-known institutions purport to abide by existing verification policies and procedures, publicly available documentation is either sparse or non-existent. Several did not respond when asked for further information. Given that the issue of identity fraud has been evident for the better part of a decade, we at JFK are concerned with the lack of progress and accountability on behalf of the many post-secondary institutions who have not, as yet, undertaken a public-facing effort to improve Indigenous identity verification polices and processes.

A handful of institutions have produced final consultation reports but have yet to develop formal policies (e.g., Memorial University, the University of Regina, and the University of Manitoba). Others, chiefly Queen’s University and the University of Saskatchewan, have begun implementation of interim identity policies. Of these, the University of Saskatchewan’s Deybwewin I taapwaywin I tapwewin: Indigenous Truth Policy currently stands, in our opinion, as the gold standard. The remainder of this blog post aims to outline in brief some of the difficulties, best practices, and resources relevant to curbing Indigenous identity fraud in the academy.

Moving Beyond “Self-Identification”

The prevalence of Indigenous identity fraud in educational institutions plainly demonstrates that applicant self-identification is no longer an appropriate hiring practice. It is also necessary to acknowledge that the process of Indigenous identity verification is fraught—there is no “one size fits all” approach. To mitigate the risk of harm to Indigenous students, staff and faculty, a growing number of colleges and universities are undertaking consultation processes with Indigenous stakeholders (including Indigenous peoples and communities active within or outside academic institutions) on the subject of Indigenous identify fraud and verification. These processes tend to be geared towards creating and implementing policies and procedures for the verification of Indigenous identity within the institution. While such consultation may seem obvious, some institutions appear to be side stepping consultation processes or otherwise failing to engage with key Indigenous stakeholders. Our findings indicate that any credible process resulting in an Indigenous verification policy ought to entail a substantial consultation component. Indigenous peoples, Nations, and communities must be engaged in any steps taken towards developing and implementing verification programs and policies within the academy.

Oversight Structures

Institutions taking steps to curb Indigenous identity fraud have tended to create structures—e.g., committees, councils, or working groups—mandated to engage with Indigenous Nations, communities, and individuals towards the development and implementation of Indigenous verification policies. Robust Indigenous representation is necessary for any internal working group or taskforce that plays a role in facilitating the engagement and policymaking process. Indigenous representation ought to include Elders and Knowledge Keepers; Indigenous faculty, staff, and students; Indigenous government and community representatives; and Indigenous urban partner organizations.

Key Elements of an Indigenous Verification Policy

In conducting our review of Indigenous verification policies we have identified several crucial elements for any academic institution undertaking this important work:

  • Provide Definitions of “Identity” and articulate the vital role of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination over matters of Indigenous membership and citizenship;
  • Centre Self Determination and the need to involve Indigenous Nations in verification processes;
  • Outline Acceptable Forms of Evidence by plainly stating what forms of written and oral evidence are permissible under the policy;
  • Include Application, Retroactivity and Consequences Provisions with clear language regarding who the policy applies to, whether the policy is retroactive, and what consequences stem from a violation of the policy and allegations of Indigenous fraud; and
  • Utilize a Forward-Looking Approach such that policies are evergreen and responsive to any changes that Indigenous Nations and communities establish when assessing Indigenous membership and citizenship.

Further Recommendations

Other best practices are emerging from the work being undertaken by post-secondary institutions to respond to Indigenous identity fraud in the academy. We highlight two of these below:


Communication in a transparent, direct, and candid way is essential towards creating effective, trustworthy, and honourable verification policies and processes. Applicants, students, and interested parties ought to be fully informed about the care with which an institution handles identity issues, including with respect to their underlying policies. To this extent, communication with applicants should be honest and forthright, while information regarding polices and practices must be made available to the public.

Cultivate Indigenous Community

An engaged Indigenous community within an educational institution supports the recruitment and retention of Indigenous scholars in part by indicating that space exists for Indigeneity on campus. This can also aid in the formation of a “feedback loop” that continues to strengthen an institution’s understanding and relationships with Indigenous communities outside the walls of the academy. Elders and Knowledge keepers ought to be a part of the university community and be involved in any processes on Indigenous identity and kinship. Safe space should be made for Elders to share their teachings in an academic setting, and protocols should be in place to ensure that Elders and their ceremonial teachings are not co-opted for improper purposes such as identity fraud.

Institutions also ought to seek the involvement and guidance of Indigenous faculty and students when developing processes that impact Indigenous peoples or engage with Indigenous issues. The establishment and development of Indigenous spaces where faculty and students can respectively come together to discuss, share, and collaborate on issues arising in the academy can be beneficial towards ensuring identity verification policies and practices are responsive to community needs.

Lastly, cultivating community may extend to forming relationships with Indigenous Nations, communities, governments, and organizations external to the university or college. As within the policymaking process, sustaining healthy and long-lasting relationships will help to ensure the long-term adequacy of institutional policies and practices.

Further Resources

First Nations University, Indigenous Voices on Indigenous Identity: What was Heard Report (2022)

Jean Teillet, “Indigenous Identity Fraud” A Report for the University of Saskatchewan (October 17, 2022)

First Peoples Group, “Gii-ikidonaaniwan It Has Been Said Queen’s University Indigenous Identity Project, Final Report (2022)

University of Manitoba, “Listening to First Nations, Metis and Inuit Communities: Engagement on Recognizing and Supporting Indigenous Identity and Kinship” (March 2023).