On a sunny afternoon in June of 2018, artist Gina Adams took the stage at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. She wore a large medallion of colourful beads, which caught the light and glittered as she spoke.
Adams, who was in her early 50s at the time, talked nervously but with evident delight as she expressed her gratitude for being selected as summer artist-in-residence for the department of studio art. She took a deep breath and greeted the audience in Anishinaabemowin, her voice and manner relaxing momentarily as she spoke: “Boozhoo, aaniin.”
Adams began by talking about her Ojibwe grandfather. “As a young child, I spent time with him, walking through the woods, talking about plants and spirit medicine. My grandfather is of Midewiwin descent, and I am of Midewiwin descent from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota,” she said. “My grandfather, however, was removed at age eight. He was sent to the Carlisle School.” The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879 in Pennsylvania, was the model institution for the 367 federally run residential schools in the United States, which sought to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children.
Adams was born in Connecticut and grew up in York, Maine, a seaside town two hours’ drive from Dartmouth. Her artwork is heavily influenced by the crafting traditions of her Lithuanian and Irish-American ancestors, and by the history of violent displacement and cultural fracturing of Indigenous communities. According to Adams, her great-great-grandfather was the Ojibwe chief Wabanquot, signatory to the Treaty with the Chippewa of the Mississippi. She is often pictured wrapped in one of her pieces from the Broken Treaty Quilts series, in which she embroiders the text of 19th-century treaties on vintage quilts.
In a 2020 interview with Public Radio Tulsa, she explained that the inspiration for the series came to her in a dream. “My Anishinaabeg ancestors are very tied and connected to our dreams, and with the medicine that can come from our dreams,” she said. “I’m very directed intuitively that way.” As a child, she told the interviewer, she was haunted by recurring nightmares of Indigenous people being massacred; her grandfather would take her for walks and calm her by speaking Ojibwe.
A year after her residency at Dartmouth, Adams joined the faculty at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, a small, public post-secondary institution in Vancouver. She was one of four new Indigenous faculty members recruited as part of a targeted cluster hire, which brought the number of Indigenous faculty to nine and increased the faculty body to 74. In a press release, Gillian Siddall, the university’s president and vice-chancellor, wrote that the cluster hire signalled “our genuine commitment to Indigenization and creating a safe cultural space for Indigenous students.”
The moment of triumph did not last. Soon after the hire, doubts about Adams’s identity cast a shadow on the school, and led to conflict among faculty, staff and students. The allegations raised serious questions about how universities hire Indigenous people—and what administrators should do if a professor is not who she claims to be.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada made 94 calls to action, among them that the federal government must eliminate the education gap between Indigenous people and other Canadians. Many universities have embraced that call (and the federal funding that accompanies it) by increasing Indigenous representation in their institutions. This practice of “Indigenizing” includes increasing the number of Indigenous students, faculty and administrators, often through targeted enrolment or hiring. Though nearly five per cent of Canadians identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, only 1.3 per cent of full-time university faculty members are Indigenous, according to a 2019 report by Universities Canada. Increasing this percentage isn’t easy, since Indigenous people are also underrepresented in graduate programs, which produce faculty members.
“Adams did not resign or apologize, nor did she respond publicly with an explanation. My doubts about her identity deepened.”
The result is fierce competition among universities, who seek to attract Indigenous candidates by decreasing barriers, such as academic qualifications or prior teaching experience, and increasing opportunities. Cluster hiring—the process of recruiting multiple faculty members at the same time—is a popular strategy among universities eager to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation. In 2017, McGill University resolved to hire up to 10 faculty who, the university said: “have lived experience and expertise in Indigenous knowledges, epistemologies, methodologies, histories, traditions, languages, or systems of laws and governance.” The following year, the University of Guelph made a cluster hire of six Indigenous faculty members. Between 2020 and 2021, OCAD University, Memorial University and the University of Waterloo announced Indigenous cluster hiring initiatives.
Emily Carr posted five positions in February of 2019. By the glacial standards of the academic job market, the cluster hire moved swiftly. By August, the school had hired four new faculty members. Among them was Adams, who’d been teaching at Naropa University, a private college in Boulder, Colorado. In the university’s announcement, Adams was described as “a contemporary Indigenous hybrid artist of Ojibwa Anishinaabe and Lakota descent of Waabonaquot of White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.” Adams began teaching in the first-year undergraduate program called Foundation, which all Emily Carr undergraduates take, that September, including a course called Aboriginal Material Practice, introducing students to traditional and contemporary Indigenous art and design techniques.
When Adams began teaching at Emily Carr, I was working at the school as a communications officer. I had been in my job for 14 months and I was excited about the new faculty members. For my job, I wrote stories about the powerful artwork created by our Indigenous students and alumni. Many of them spoke about the importance of their Indigenous teachers, like Xwalacktun (born Rick Harry), an Emily Carr alumnus and master carver of Squamish and Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry, and Mimi Gellman, a long-time professor and interdisciplinary artist. I, too, had been deeply affected by the Indigenous mentorship and support I received as a student.
Though I’m a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, I grew up in Vancouver. With my fair skin and auburn hair, people never guessed I was Indigenous, and I preferred it that way. (My mom is of northern European ancestry.) I wasn’t ashamed of being Cree, but I was uncomfortable talking about it. Mentioning my identity often led to questions about “how much” Indigenous blood I had or demands to see my status card, which made me defensive, as if I had to prove who I was. Even well-meaning questions about Cree culture or language were painful, because I never knew how to answer.
My paternal grandmother, Mary, was born on Muskeg Lake Cree Nation reserve in Saskatchewan but my father was born in British Columbia, and so was I. My grandmother was a fixture in my childhood, but she didn’t teach us Cree—when she was just five years old, she went to residential school, where speaking her language was forbidden—and we had grown up far away from our culture. I remember her as strict, yet gentle. She never raised her voice, but expected me to clean my plate before I got dessert. She was hard-working and precise, braiding my hair into tight plaits, rising early in the morning to garden, knitting a sweater while watching Days of Our Lives. She developed dementia in her late 70s and moved to a care home in Vancouver’s West End. By the time I was old enough to be curious about where our family came from, I had lost the chance to ask her.
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I didn’t recognize the gaps in my knowledge as the inevitable product of forcible assimilation. I saw them as a personal failing, a sign that I wasn’t Indigenous enough. If I protested a racist comment about how Indigenous people never paid taxes or drank too much, I’d often hear, “Oh, I’m not talking about people like you.” The message was clear: being Indigenous was tragic or shameful. Or it was mystical and noble, a warrior on a horse, somehow untouched by colonization. Middle-class and easily sunburned, I didn’t fit with any of the stereotypes I saw or heard. I didn’t know any Cree people in Vancouver apart from my family.
I might have continued feeling lonely in my Indigeneity for the rest of my life, but something transformative happened in my second year at the University of Victoria. In 2005, the school invited me to participate in a four-year pilot program called LE,NONET (a Senćoten word that refers to success after prolonged hardship). UVic created it for Indigenous students, who had historically been more likely to withdraw from their programs than graduate.
The program was designed to foster community, support academic success and reinforce Indigenous identity. I said yes without thinking much about it, figuring that peer mentoring and community participation would look good on my resumé.
When I walked into the LE,NONET office, I braced myself for the familiar discomfort of feeling like an imposter. Instead, I met a diverse group of Indigenous students, many of whom had personal stories that echoed my own. Others had arrived at university from close-knit Indigenous communities and were grappling with culture shock. Throughout the four years of the program, I forged friendships and connections over lunches and movie nights, beading workshops and talking circles. For the first time, I heard others describing experiences I’d been having my whole life: sitting through classroom conversations about Indigenous people feeling invisible, overhearing racist comments and wondering whether to speak up or stay silent, fielding disappointment from white people who expect you to teach them about your culture. I realized that other Indigenous people had never made me feel inadequate. When we visited Muskeg Lake, I’d always been embraced as family. It was only among non-Indigenous people that I felt like the wrong kind of Indian.
The program was a success: compared to those of Indigenous students who didn’t participate, graduation rates among LE,NONET members were 20 per cent higher and withdrawal rates were 67 per cent lower. These results demonstrated the powerful impact of Indigenous community, particularly for those who grow up without it.
Through LE,NONET, I felt not just accepted but seen, a recognition that allowed me to begin unknotting the complex sense of shame I had been carrying. The program also showed me that Indigeneity is not an ancestral or biological detail. It’s an active, dynamic process of connection and affirmation that exists in relation to others, equally a gift and a responsibility. The people I met through LE,NONET helped me see what it meant to belong.
My participation in LE,NONET also made me valuable to the university. I became a poster child, photographed and profiled in an annual review, my experience featured on the university website. Years later, at Emily Carr, I would write similar reports and stories, celebrating Indigenous individuals whose accomplishments and triumphs reflected well on the school. It was important for institutions not only to help Indigenous people but to be seen as helping them, to be recognized as the benefactors of their success.
In March of 2021, 19 months after Adams took the job at Emily Carr, an anonymous Twitter account called NoMoreRedFace posted a tweet that read: “Would you FAKE a residential school survivor backstory to sell $35,000 quilts and land a tenure track professorship in Aboriginal art?” The tweet then named Gina Adams, saying that “research suggests” she had done “just that.”
The NoMoreRedFace account had begun posting in late 2020, sharing detailed and deeply researched threads investigating the claims of individuals who had leveraged their Indigenous identities for prestige and profit. No one knew who was behind it, and not everyone liked it: many Indigenous people were adamant that anonymous accusations were not the right way to deal with identity fraud.
Just days before calling out Adams, NoMoreRedFace posted a thread about the SFU Galleries curator cheyanne turions, who had accepted more than $100,000 in grants intended for Indigenous curators. turions subsequently admitted in a blog post that she could not substantiate her claims to Indigenous ancestry. (She eventually resigned in November of last year.)
In its 13-tweet thread on Adams, NoMoreRedFace documented her ancestry claims, along with a family tree that disputed them. According to the thread, Adams’s grandfather was not Ojibwe at all; he was a white man named Albert Theriault, who was born in Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents.
By the time the thread was posted, Adams had been appointed as an assistant dean, featured by the Wall Street Journal and included in an exhibition of Indigenous artists at the Brooklyn Museum. Her career, which was inexorably tied to her Indigenous identity, was on the rise.
The allegations against Adams were only the latest in a series of shocking stories about public figures who had built successful careers on their claims to Indigeneity. In December of 2020, CBC revealed that filmmaker Michelle Latimer had been called out by members of Kitigan Zibi First Nation, who accused her of exaggerating her connections to the community. Latimer stepped down from her role as director of the acclaimed television series Trickster, which was swiftly cancelled. (To this day, she maintains she has Algonquin and French-Canadian heritage.) The following February, Amie Wolf, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, was fired amid speculation about her Mi’kmaw identity claims. (Wolf maintains that her grandparents were Indigenous but has not provided any supporting evidence.)
When I saw the Adams tweets, I felt a jolt of anticipation, exchanging frenzied messages with colleagues, certain something was about to happen. Either Adams would clear up the misconceptions, or she would admit that, like turions, she could not provide evidence of her claims. If she couldn’t, I thought, then surely she would have to resign.
As a member of the Emily Carr communications team, I was on high alert. I monitored notifications on social media accounts and received emails forwarded by concerned colleagues about the allegations. I wished I could respond with a clear answer: these allegations were false, or we were addressing the issue internally. There was no clarity in the days and weeks that followed. Adams did not resign or apologize, nor did she respond publicly with an explanation. My doubts about her identity deepened.
A few days after the tweets were posted, Adams began circulating a lengthy statement about her ancestry to select members of the Emily Carr community. It began: “My name is Gina Adams and I am the granddaughter of Albert Edmund Theriault and this is my family genealogy.” According to my research, this was the first time she had referred to her grandfather by name in any type of statement. She continued, “When I was a young girl, my grandfather told me that he was of Chippewa: Ojibwe-Lakota descent and that he was born and raised as a young boy on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. He related to me that when he was eight years old, he was removed from White Earth by a man named Charles Wright and sent to the Carlisle School.”
Her 1,500-word statement was impassioned and detailed, chronicling her grandparents’ marriage, her early childhood and her journey to becoming an artist. But it was vague on the facts of her ancestry. She wrote that her grandfather Albert had no birth certificate and changed his surname to Theriault when he married her Lithuanian grandmother to “evade and thwart the serious miscegenation laws.” Afterwards, he passed as white. As a result, there was nothing to link their family to the White Earth Nation or the Carlisle School, to the ancestors she had claimed, whose images appear in her work. Still, she insisted her story was true. “To those people on social media who have questioned my legitimate heritage, I say nothing,” she wrote. “To my gallerists, my university and my wider Indigenous communities whom I deeply respect, I am happy to share my family lineage.”
When I read her statement, I heard my heart pounding in my ears, as if I were anxiously watching someone attempt a death-defying stunt. It struck me as highly unlikely that an Indigenous boy, born on reserve and sent to residential school, could remain completely undocumented despite the extensive records of Indigenous people the government kept at the time.
The university did not react to any of this. Adams continued her role as a faculty member and assistant dean, though she stopped teaching the Aboriginal Material Practice course. In late March of 2021, I emailed senior administrators at Emily Carr, outlining the doubts I had about Adams’s statement. “If this is a terrible misunderstanding, I can only imagine how painful and upsetting this is for Gina,” I wrote. “But the possibility that this accusation is true is also painful for Indigenous people at Emily Carr. And I don’t know that accountability and reconciliation is possible in an institution that can’t confront that harm.” By Zoom, I met with the president and vice-president academic, who were sympathetic but non-committal. They informed me that Professor Mimi Gellman, who identifies as Anishinaabe, Ashkenazi Jewish and Métis, and Brenda Crabtree, a Nlaka’pamux and Sto:lo staff member who serves as the Aboriginal program manager and special advisor to the president on Indigenous initiatives, had spoken with Adams and believed her to be truthful. Their endorsement of Adams was apparently enough for the administration to consider the case closed.
I found this baffling. Crabtree and Gellman, though respected and thoughtful Indigenous leaders on campus, are not part of the Ojibwe community that Adams had claimed; they could not confirm Adams’s relations or connections. Crabtree declined my interview request. In an email, Gellman described Adams as a generous colleague and a highly skilled and committed faculty member. She denied vouching for Adams’s identity claims but said she believes Adams should have time to gather information and documentation that may corroborate her ancestry, community relations and kinships.
Although the administration seemed content to move on, other Indigenous members of the community continued asking questions that hadn’t been answered. If there was nothing to hide, why the secrecy? At various points over the last few months, while researching this article, I reached out to Adams and her gallery by phone and email. I outlined my concerns about her story in detail. She did not respond to any of my inquiries.
Raymond Boisjoly, a Haida artist and former assistant professor at Emily Carr who participated in the cluster hiring process, was perturbed by Adams’s silence. After he read the Twitter thread, Boisjoly emailed Adams, suggesting that he connect her with an Indigenous colleague skilled at genealogy. “She offered to help Gina if she wanted help to affirm her identity through genealogical research,” Boisjoly told me. “I was not accusing her of anything, but just saying, ‘I know someone who can help, if you want.’ ” Adams never replied. “The absence of a response felt like an admission,” Boisjoly said.
In the early 20th century, a binge-drinking British man named Archibald Belaney began calling himself Grey Owl, dying his hair black and going around in moccasins. Since then, countless people have made similar transformations. Some might yearn for sympathy and attention—what Atlantic writer Helen Lewis called “social Munchausen syndrome”—while others are just looking for an interesting detail to ornament their mundane biographies. These Pretendians, as they’re now known, speculate about their “Indian blood” or pass down family stories about a distant Lakota ancestor. They haunt genealogy forums, looking for Indigenous ancestors, and sometimes they even find one. That the ancestor in question lived hundreds of years ago hardly matters; what matters to them is that, like Grey Owl, they feel themselves to be authentically Indigenous.
I have heard dozens of stories over the years from people who were eager to tell me that they’re probably just as Native as I am—that their great-grandmother was, in fact, a Cherokee princess, or that, just before he died, their grandfather told them he was descended from a famous Mohawk warrior. For most of my life, I saw these claims as harmless. Who am I to burst someone’s bubble if they want to believe that some unknown ancestor has imbued them with high cheekbones or a special connection to the land? As long as they weren’t wearing a headdress, it was none of my business.
But in recent years, people who are self-Indigenizing—claiming an identity based on distant or specious connections—can profit from their fantasies by capitalizing on a slew of opportunities meant for Indigenous people. Overwhelmingly, these have been open to anyone who self-identifies as Indigenous.
Veldon Coburn, who is Anishinaabe from the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, witnessed this shift during his graduate studies. “When I was starting my Ph.D., nobody was interested in Indigenous politics in Canada,” said Coburn, now a professor at the University of Ottawa. “By the time I was finishing in 2018, I was getting recruited everywhere. And so people are like, ‘Well, if I self-identify, I can get that coveted job.’”
The number of Indigenous faculty has gradually risen as a result of concerted diversity efforts by universities, as well as the increasing number of self-identified Indigenous people applying for them. In 2006, 210 professors in Canada self-identified as Métis; by 2016, that number was 410. When Coburn decided to attend graduate school in 2007, he wanted to study with an Indigenous faculty member, which limited his options. “There were a handful across the country,” he said. “Fast-forward 10 years, and they’re everywhere—and it seems like many of them have a shady story.”
Many universities now find themselves grappling with identity fraud. In June of 2021, an anonymous report alleged that six faculty and administrators at Queen’s University had made false claims to Indigenous identity; three of them are members of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, a group founded in the 1980s that is not recognized by the federal government, the Algonquins of Ontario or the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council. Last October, an investigation by the CBC found no evidence that the respected health researcher and University of Saskatchewan faculty member Carrie Bourassa had connections to the Métis, Tlingit and Anishinaabe communities she had claimed at various times. Though the university initially came to her defence, releasing a statement from the provost that “the quality of Professor Bourassa’s scholarly work speaks for itself,” she was later placed on leave and resigned in June. (Bourassa has changed her story and now says she was adopted by a Métis friend of her grandfather when she was in her early 20s. She continues to assert her right to self-identify as Indigenous.)
Like the Pretendians who have emerged in recent years, Grey Owl fooled countless white people, who saw in his performance a version of Indigeneity that reflected their assumptions and stereotypes back at them. Indigenous people recognized him for the fraud that he was. Though he lived and lied nearly a century ago, his story carries an unsettlingly contemporary lesson: some people still prefer a fake Indian to a real one.
Gina Adams described herself as an unenrolled descendant of the White Earth Nation, which means she did not have tribal membership or identification. In Canada, the approximate equivalent to tribal membership is Indian status, which denotes Indigenous people who are registered under the Indian Act and entitled to specific rights. About one-quarter of self-identified First Nations people are non-status. Some Indigenous people reject Indian status as an explicitly colonial tool, while others lack the documentation to register. Many First Nations in Canada have their own membership criteria and processes, separate from the Act. When Indigenous people meet one another, we tend not to place emphasis on status versus non-status; instead, we ask about relationships.
Jacqueline Ottmann, the president of First Nations University of Canada, told me: “A typical exchange in our communities is asking who you are and where you come from. Where are your roots? Where is your territory? Indigenous people have navigated relationality for centuries by asking these questions.” I knew exactly what she meant. There are a handful of common last names from my nation, and if I meet a Greyeyes, Lafond or Arcand, we can usually figure out if we’re related in a few brief questions.
As the Twitter thread by NoMoreRedFace was being retweeted and shared, the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, was preparing for an exhibition co-curated by Adams that would be showing her work as well. The exhibit, entitled Echoes in Time, featured the work of 16 Native American artists, part of a months-long effort by the museum to uplift Native voices.
One of those artists, who asked to remain anonymous in this story, had heard rumours about Adams’s identity and approached the museum curator to ask if she had verified Adams’s claims. The curator was receptive at first, but soon became defensive. “She told me that she accepted Gina’s statement and that she supported her.”
READ: Inside UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre
The artist contacted the Fruitlands Native advisory group, who hadn’t been consulted about the exhibition and didn’t even know it was taking place. Members of the board, including the Aquinnah Wampanoag artist Elizabeth James-Perry, were concerned. The show’s opening was delayed by two weeks, and Adams removed her work from the exhibit. While the exhibiting artists were listed with their tribal affiliations on the museum’s website, Adams was listed as a co-curator by name only. James-Perry described the situation to me as “a mess.”
In May of 2021, the Boston Globe published a story about the exhibit controversy, calling the issue “profoundly divisive.” According to the Globe, Fruitlands’ managing director of art and exhibitions, Jessica May, admitted she did not check Adams’s claims. “I expect that if they claim that identity as their own, they are doing so truthfully,” she said.
As a staff member at Emily Carr, I believed that although I could voice my concerns in private emails and conversations, I would almost certainly lose my job if I were to join my Indigenous community in publicly calling on Adams to explain herself. Despite their promises to Indigenize, universities require their Indigenous staff and students to comply with the institutional ways of doing things. Our inclusion is always on their terms. And their reluctance to act in the face of widespread identity fraud suggests that their primary concern is always for themselves: their reputations, their rankings, their finances. After all, it’s difficult to fire professors, particularly when they’re tenured. So far, no permanent faculty member who has been accused of or admitted to Indigenous identity fraud has been fired outright. The lack of precedent is paralyzing. Universities are like herds of nervous antelope. They all want to run from danger at the same time, in the same direction, and none of them want to be the first to break away from the group.
At Emily Carr, the unanswered questions about Adams’s identity felt like a rotten floorboard that everyone had to step carefully around. Questions and comments about Adams regularly popped up on the social media accounts that I monitored as part of my job in communications, and I dutifully declined to answer them. Like Adams, the university would not acknowledge the issue. When I wrote statements for National Indigenous Peoples Day and Orange Shirt Day on behalf of the university, emphasizing our ongoing commitment to decolonization and reconciliation, I felt complicit. When I ensured our land acknowledgement was formatted correctly on our website, I thought about how much easier it is for institutions to say the right words than to take the right actions.
Privately, I agonized. “I am still spiralling over the fact that ECU is just sweeping the Gina Adams thing under the rug and hoping no one brings it up, I guess,” I texted to an Indigenous friend around that time. “omg yeah I can’t believe they’re not doing anything!” she wrote back. “and how awful for Indigenous students—like how are they supposed to navigate their dealings with her?” I felt sick when I thought about it.
In September, demoralized and defeated, I resigned. I didn’t look for another job. I just wanted out. Our president, a woman I like and respect who has been unfailingly kind to me, invited me to a meeting to talk about my departure. In her warm, sunlit office, surrounded by Indigenous artwork on the shelves and walls, I surprised myself by starting to cry. “I don’t feel like I’m doing good work anymore,” I told her. I didn’t mention Adams in that meeting. I had already asked multiple times if anything would be done, and nothing had happened. I saw no point in asking again for something they were not prepared to offer.
“In less than an hour, I had found dozens of documents, including a First World War draft card and census records for Adams’s great-grandfather Henry Theriault, listing his race as white.”
Even after I left Emily Carr, I couldn’t stop thinking about Adams. I wanted to know why the person behind NoMoreRed-Face had suspected her in the first place. Though the account had been deleted a few months earlier, I sent a message to the email address associated with it in June. To my surprise, I received a reply immediately. A few days later, a person phoned me from an anonymous number and wouldn’t reveal their name. For the purposes of this article, I’ll call them Taylor.
Taylor explained that they had stumbled across Adams while investigating another potential fraud. “Something just felt wrong,” they told me. “The way she was interacting with the trauma felt performative.” On Adams’s social media, they saw she had posted an old newspaper photo about her mother, Elaine, who had been a teenage pageant queen in her hometown of York, Maine. That supplied a name and location, enough to start putting together a family tree. Taylor then combed the Carlisle School records, which are public, and called up people who knew Adams personally, including members of her family.
Weeks of research failed to produce any proof of Adams’s claims. Taylor reached out to her directly. “My policy was to give people a heads-up,” they said. “I’m not a journalist, but it seemed ethical.” Taylor offered Adams the chance to respond before posting on Twitter. She declined.
Was it really that easy to research a person’s background? I decided to retrace the research myself. I made an account on Ancestry.com. I had Adams’s grandfather’s name, his place of residence, and the year of his death. In less than an hour, I had found dozens of documents: census and Social Security records, obituaries, birth and marriage certificates, and news clippings. I found a First World War draft card for Albert’s father, Henry Theriault, which lists Henry’s race as “white”; I found census records from 1900, 1920, 1930 and 1940, which give Henry’s race as white. I also found an account registered to someone named Gina Adams, created in 2015, which included one item: a “Theriault Family Tree,” with five members, including her grandfather Albert. I wondered if Adams had done the same research as me, and arrived at the same inescapable facts: that her grandfather was born in 1906 in Conway, Massachusetts, to white parents, Rose (neé Jarvis) and Henry Theriault.
Adams’s story was built around a convincingly traumatic event: her grandfather’s supposed abduction to residential school, and the cultural displacement that followed. She used photos of children from the Carlisle School in her presentations, claiming their tragedies as her own. Because many Indigenous families, including mine, have been impacted by residential schools, her narrative was persuasively familiar. In the personal statement she had selectively circulated, she wrote, “My research and academic journey has been focused on how I can tell this American tragedy of disconnection from one’s cultures.” That tragedy is real. I just couldn’t find any evidence that it belonged to Adams.
I was curious about Adams’s more contemporary family members—her siblings, mother, aunts and uncles. Did any of them identify as Indigenous? By phone, I reached two of her sisters. Misty Ellis confirmed she was related to Adams, but told me she didn’t want to comment, then hung up. Teresa Lever asked me to send her an email, so I wrote to her and explained that I was following up on questions regarding their family’s claims to Ojibwe heritage. She wrote back: “I have no direct knowledge to provide regarding this inquiry.” Both had the wary, guarded tones of people who had been contacted with these questions before.
Unlike Carrie Bourassa or novelist Joseph Boyden, who aroused suspicion through shifting and non-specific claims, Adams was specific about the ancestors and nation she was claiming. Early this past summer, I reached out to the enrolment office at the White Earth Nation to ask if they had any record of Gina Adams or her grandfather. In July, I got a terse reply from Shannon Heisler, the enrolments director for the tribe, who wrote, “Yes, I know all about Ms. Adams and the situation.” Intrigued, I called and asked what she meant by “the situation”? She gave a long laugh before she answered. Heisler told me she had never heard of Adams until she was contacted early last year by NoMoreRedFace. Heisler looked into Adams afterward. “We don’t have her, or her parent or grandparent, with any links to this tribe,” Heisler told me.
White Earth, like other American tribes, allow non-enrolled descendants to apply for a certificate of Indian blood, a letter verifying that the applicant is a child or grandchild of an enrolled member. Heisler, who has been the director of enrolments for White Earth for seven years, said Adams had not contacted her or the tribe. “People are upset because she’s been claiming she’s a descendant,” Heisler told me. “I can’t find any documentation that would link her or her family to White Earth.”
In August, a fact checker for Maclean’s reached out to Heisler to confirm all this and learned something interesting: after my original call with Heisler, Adams did submit an application. It was rejected. The White Earth Nation couldn’t find any of Adams’s relatives in their database.
By making Indigenous identity a qualification on a job description, institutions—including universities—have turned it into a credential. But credentials demand a degree of accountability, particularly when you’re talking about restricted opportunities meant for a designated group. If you were hired as a veterinarian, it would be relevant whether you did indeed graduate from vet school. If others raised questions about the veracity of your qualifications, it would be reasonable for your employer to expect you to produce your degree.
Jean Teillet, a Métis lawyer, has given this matter considerable thought. Teillet was retained by the University of Saskatchewan to investigate Indigenous identity fraud after Carrie Bourassa’s claims were called into question. I reached out to Teillet to ask her about the role universities should play in investigating identity fraud allegations. “A university’s responsibility is different now than it was a couple years ago,” said Teillet. “The difference is that universities are well aware that they have Pretendians in their midst. A few years ago, universities could still claim ignorance and that they were acting in good faith. Now they can’t say that.”
And who has the right to know the details of someone’s Indigeneity? Adams shared a statement about her story selectively, suggesting the specifics of her Indigenous identity are private. Latimer made a similar claim to privacy when she filed a lawsuit in April of 2021 against the CBC for investigating questions about her ancestry (she dropped the case in October). “You can’t put that horse back in the barn,” said Teillet with a laugh. “I don’t know how you can have a reasonable expectation of privacy when you’re all over the map, talking about your Indigenous identity.”
Universities are understandably squeamish about asking for proof of Indigenous identity, in part because they wouldn’t know what to ask for. Indigenous identities aren’t about racial or biological characteristics that can be reduced to a 23andMe result. They’re nationalities, which exist only in relation to specific communities. Just as one is Canadian because Canada claims them as a citizen, I am only Cree because my kin from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation claim me.
However, asking for proof of those nationalities is also complex. Status cards are regulated by the federal Indian Act and not Indigenous communities themselves. And relying on a piece of government ID rather than a self-declaration merely substitutes one oversimplified process for another. While status cards will filter out people who are claiming an Indigenous identity based on distant or speculative ancestors, they also exclude Indigenous people with active, living connections to their communities who are not registered under the Act. The University of Saskatchewan, shortly after announcing in May that they would implement an “Indigenous verification policy,” faced criticism for demanding that a prospective faculty member, the Cree-Métis scholar Réal Carrière, present “written documentation” despite his deep familial and cultural ties. Winona Wheeler, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, told CBC that the university’s actions were “bordering on the paranoid.” The university has since confirmed that it will require those applying for positions meant for Indigenous candidates to present proof of citizenship in the form of a Métis citizenship or First Nations status card.
Another concern is that the spotlight on identity fraud will cultivate an atmosphere of suspicion, leading to false accusations. In a blog post about Adams in June of 2021, Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo–Yankton Dakota journalist and author of an “Alleged Pretendians List,” also took aim at Emily Carr professor Mimi Gellman. In her post, Keeler wrote, “Mimi Gellman is a 5th generation descendant of a Native woman of an unknown tribe. The rest of her mother’s family tree is French Canadian.” A few days later, Gellman replied to Keeler by email and posted her response in its entirety in a public Facebook post. She listed six generations of her ancestors by name and community, adding, “These records can all be found in the Métis Scrip Records, in the Volumes of Métis Families, Government of Canada Files Data Base, in the Libraries and Archives of Canada.”
Not every Indigenous person has access to such impeccable records. The relationships that constitute Indigenous identity have been deliberately fractured across generations, through residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the ongoing overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care. As a result, many Indigenous people don’t know where or who they come from, and they deserve respect and care as they navigate their journeys of reconnection. But finding one’s way back to a community is very different from using an identity claim as currency to buy one’s way into a prestigious job. And anyone in a position of power should be held to a high standard of transparency and truthfulness.
In March, more than 400 Indigenous people gathered for an invitation-only virtual conference called the National Indigenous Identity Forum to discuss the widespread problem of Indigenous identity fraud. Jacqueline Ottmann, the president of First Nations University, helped organize it. In June, First Nations University released a report recommending that institutions end the practice of self-identification when hiring new scholars. “Self-identification no longer has a place in these spaces,” Ottmann told me. “The focus is now on citizenship, membership and relationality to community and lived experiences.”
The harder question is what to do about people who are already embedded in institutions. So far, universities have only taken action on identity fraud once the issue has become too public to ignore. Institutions that have not received the same degree of media attention have been much slower to act. Ottmann believes they must, particularly when one of their members is under suspicion, and that universities need to create new policies for how such cases will be handled. A second forum, planned for October, will advance an Indigenous-led conversation on how universities and other sectors should respond.
“I think that university leaders believe themselves to be allies of Indigenous people, and they can’t confront the truth that their efforts may have done more harm than good.”
Queen’s University, after a review into their hiring practices, announced in July that they would set up an Indigenous Oversight Committee to advise them on how to validate the Indigenous identities of their faculty and staff. Such committees are not without risk. Teillet told me of a university that tried to appoint an Indigenous advisory committee to help them tackle the issue of identity fraud, but ended up appointing a faculty member suspected of making a fraudulent claim to the committee. “So you can see the tangled procedural problems that they’re all running up against,” she said. Universities have created this mess, and it’s hard to imagine how they can solve it from within.
Perhaps the solution should come from somewhere else. Teillet said one idea that came out of the National Indigenous Identity Forum was the establishment of a national body. Such an organization might be useful because there are hundreds of Indigenous communities in Canada, and the faculty at a particular university may not be familiar with the nation that an applicant is claiming. “So you could contact the national body and they could say, ‘Oh, this individual says they’re Mi’kmaw? Okay, you can talk to this person who is Mi’kmaw.’ ” This body would ensure that Indigenous people, not universities, retain authority over who is affirmed as a member of their communities. “The university’s role is not to determine if someone is Indigenous,” Teillet said. “It’s to determine if they are being honest in whatever they are claiming.”
Before the 2019 cluster hire at Emily Carr, there were five Indigenous faculty members; three have since left the university, including Raymond Boisjoly. That means there are now six Indigenous faculty members, if you count Adams. Depending on how you look at it, the university is right back where it started.
Over the summer, Maclean’s reached out to Emily Carr for comment about the allegations outlined in this article. The communications department sent a lengthy statement, which emphasized its general commitment to “reconciliation, Indigenization and decolonization.” As for Adams, the statement described how back in 2019, Emily Carr was “confident this hiring process followed best practice at the time” but that “Maclean’s magazine has brought forward new information that we are carefully considering as we determine how to move forward.” They did not say what information was new. Many of the points I’ve made in this article were raised in the NoMoreRed-Face Twitter thread from March last year.
Emily Carr, and other universities across the country, will hopefully take something away from this experience. The statement from the school says: “We are actively engaged in a learning process to review and revise our criteria for assessing identity when hiring for positions designated for Indigenous candidates.”
Creating new hiring policies is a start. But universities must also examine their pasts, and not only after they are prompted by a media investigation. I don’t think their reluctance to do so stems from indifference. I think that university leaders believe themselves to be allies of Indigenous people, and can’t confront the truth that their efforts may have done more harm than good.
Back in 2018, while speaking from the stage of Dartmouth College, Adams paused her presentation on an image of one of her pieces, which featured a photograph of a nameless Indigenous person, their features obscured by layers of encaustic beeswax. Her own face was lit by the lights of the theatre as she looked out at the crowd, her voice solemn. “Appropriating is something that you should really be careful with, with any Indigenous culture,” she said. “You’re really robbing a culture, you’re really robbing an identity. You’re really just trying to own something that’s not yours.”
This article appears in print in the October 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $29.99.