Say what you will about Carrie Bourassa: She didn’t blame it on high cheekbones.
However, unlike Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bourassa — a university professor and one of Canada’s top indigenous health experts — played the role to the hilt.
According to a lengthy Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report last month, Bourassa in 2019 appeared at a TEDx talk wearing a shawl and traditional Métis tribal sash, holding a feather in her hand.
“My name is Morning Star Bear,” she told the audience, choked up with emotion. “I’m just going to say it — I’m emotional.”
She also was full of rubbish.
The state-owned CBC’s report revealed that genealogical records reviewed by her colleagues show that Bourassa is white, as her ancestors were from Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
According to The Washington Post, Bourassa on Nov. 1 “stepped aside as the scientific director of the Indigenous health arm of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a government-affiliated agency.” The Post also reported that Bourassa was placed on leave from her job as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan as the university investigates her case.
Bourassa, who is in her late 40s, had claimed membership in the Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit tribes. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research described her in an email as “a Métis woman, a highly regarded Indigenous researcher” who “has been a selfless leader and a tireless champion for all Indigenous Peoples in this country,” according to the CBC.
She also had been named one of Canada’s most powerful women for 2021 by a women’s group in Toronto.
It was her TEDx talk from 2019 that was the beginning of her undoing, however. During the speech, a misty Bourassa talked of a childhood in which she faced violence and poverty.
“I’m Bear Clan. I’m Anishinaabe Métis from Treaty Four Territory,” she said during the speech, according to the CBC.
Her colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan, however, saw the talk and called shenanigans.
“When I saw that TEDx, to be quite honest, I was repulsed by how hard she was working to pass herself off as indigenous,” said associate indigenous studies professor Winona Wheeler, a member of Manitoba’s Fisher River Cree Nation — one with the receipts to back it up, it’s worth noting.
“You’ve got no right to tell people that’s who you are in order to gain legitimacy, to get positions and to get funding. That’s abuse.”
When Wheeler started looking for Bourassa’s receipts, in the form of genealogical records, what she found probably won’t shock you if you remember Elizabeth Warren’s 1/1,024th-gate.
In this case, Bourassa couldn’t even produce that. Janet Smylie, a Métis family medicine professor from the University of Toronto who had her work included in a 2017 anthology edited by Bourassa, also said she found evidence that Bourassa was lying through her own research.
“It makes you feel a bit sick,” Smylie told the CBC. “To have an impostor who is speaking on behalf of Métis and Indigenous people to the country about literally what it means to be Métis … that’s very disturbing and upsetting and harmful.”
Caroline Tait, another University of Saskatchewan professor of Métis heritage, became suspicious of Bourassa’s shifting stories about her lineage.
According to Tait, Bourassa had started identifying as Métis at first, but added the Anishinaabe and Tlingit tribes to her background later. And then there was the stereotypical attire she wore during her TEDx talk, which Tait said Bourassa donned with increasing regularity.
“Everybody cheers and claps, and it’s beautiful,” Tait said. “It is the performance that we all want from indigenous people — this performance of being the stoic, spiritual, culturally attached person [with] which we can identify because we’ve seen them in Disney movies.”
The CBC’s report indeed revealed that all of Bourassa’s genealogical roads led back to Europe. She didn’t even have a test, like Warren did, that proved she was fractionally indigenous or family stories about high cheekbones (or whatever). Instead, she altered her story to say she was adopted into the Métis in her 20s by a friend of her grandfather, Clifford Larocque, who has died since then.
“Even though Clifford passed, those bonds are even deeper than death because the family has taken me as if I was their blood family. In turn, I serve the Métis community to the best of my ability,” Bourassa said in an email to the CBC.
Naturally, what her colleagues are annoyed about is that Bourassa appropriated the identity of an indigenous person. Per usual, the point is flying over their head like a jet at cruising altitude. She didn’t just appropriate an identity, she got a job because of it.
Indigenous Canadians have worse health outcomes, on average, than the Canadian people as a whole.
Bourassa was one of the top indigenous health authorities in the country, and yet, the fact that she dissembled about her heritage for years — and subsequently was placed on leave from one job and left another because of that dissembling — indicates that background was part of the reason why she was there. Her ability to do the job wasn’t quite as important.
Note that the outrage was never based on her performance. Granted, lying about your background is a sure way to lose any job, but no one seems upset they’re losing an effective and valued colleague.
Rather, it’s all couched in terms such as this quote from Wheeler: “It’s theft. It is colonialism in its worst form, and it’s a gross form of white privilege.”
But was she any good? Or were her employers merely looking for someone who could plausibly fill out a tribal shawl and wave a feather around on stage?
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