I was raised in an Indigenous community — but even that doesn’t make me Indigenous

What the Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond case should teach us about whiteness and Indigenous kinship ties
Photo: Lax Kw’alaams is located on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, near Prince Rupert. Photo from Lax Kw’alaams Band
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I’m a white settler of Scottish ancestry living on the lands of the Kwikwetlem people. I was raised in northern communities, including Lax Kw’alaams, a remote Indigenous community, where my family was welcomed and adopted through the traditional feast system. I have worked in anti-racism education for the last five years, specializing in anti-Indigenous racism, and before that I worked as a lawyer in Northern B.C., close to where I grew up. My husband and children are Gitxsan.

None of these things make me Indigenous, or allow me to take up space meant for Indigenous people.

I’m responding to recent news that Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond may not have any Indigenous ancestry, despite being lauded as an Indigenous woman trailblazer in the legal field. I first came to know about METL in my undergraduate studies, where we researched her mother-in-law, Alphonsine Lafond, the first Indigenous woman justice of the peace in Saskatchewan. METL’s accomplishments and standing as an Indigenous woman lawyer and judge were inspiring and part of the reason I decided to go to law school. And that is where I believed the similarities between us ended — until I read the CBC investigation into her claims of Indigeneity published last week.

A recent CBC investigation discovered that some of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s claims about her Cree ancestry, the community where she grew up, and her academic accomplishments, are inconsistent with publicly available documents. Her story illuminates a complex and growing discussion about Indigenous identity that’s playing out across the country.
UBC

I realized there are many parallels between our lives that can support understandings of whiteness and Indigeneity in the context of Indigenous community relationships and belonging.

When I was a child, my father was invited by Elders of a remote Indigenous community to fill the post of United Church minister. He was previously employed as a forester, so this was a dramatic career change, but one guided by long consultations with Indigenous leaders in the church and the community. My dad knew his position was as an outsider trying to do good, a white person and representative of a church that had caused tremendous harm over the previous hundred years. He was open about the importance of acknowledging the harm caused by missionaries, residential schools, and decades of intentional efforts to destroy Indigenous families, cultures and communities. And he was asked by the community to do things differently, to provide the religious and support services the community asked for while honouring and participating in the feast system, language learning, and food harvesting. My father learned the Tsimshian language, but this also did not make him Indigenous. Similarly, METL’s father and grandfather may have felt close to and supportive of Indigenous communities, but they were still living as white people in Indigenous spaces.

I would not claim connection to a community that my grandfather and father lived in but that I didn’t. As someone raised in an Indigenous community, I gained significant experiences and learnings that make me accountable to Indigenous people. My experiences taught me much about respect, dedication to family, and responsibility to community. As a white person, I grew up knowing that my family had benefited for generations because of colonial policies, and that I would continue to benefit from unearned advantages at the expense of Indigenous people and land. My adopted kinship ties are important within community, for feasting, and for myself and my responsibilities personally. They do not qualify me to claim an Indigenous identity, or to access equity measures within education or employment that are meant to counter the systemic barriers and racism experienced by Indigenous people. I have never leveraged those connections to apply for any position or scholarship meant for Indigenous people, or to accrue any accolades for myself, or to claim that I had to overcome any impacts of colonization or racism on the path to my achievements.

My kinship ties and relationship with the community matters at feasts, weddings, memorials, and around the dinner table — but they do not extend to receiving Indigenous awards and honours or taking a seat from those with lived experience in navigating the world as Indigenous people.

Another parallel to METL is that I also married an Indigenous man, and we lived in his community while I was working as a lawyer. I have always been welcome in my husband’s community and am definitely a part of the family. My marriage into a Gitxsan family, however, did not change the reality that I, as a white woman, was participating in ongoing colonization through the criminal and family legal systems. My legal training taught me to be the “expert,” administering justice according to “impartial” laws, which were actually designed to imprison and impoverish Indigenous people and appropriate their lands and children. When I became pregnant, my family moved back to the city, and I changed careers to focus on educating other settlers, especially white people, about the impact of ongoing colonization and anti-Indigenous racism.

As a white person, I grew up knowing that my family had benefited for generations because of colonial policies, and that I would continue to benefit from unearned advantages at the expense of Indigenous people and land.

A large part of this work involves self-reflection on my whiteness and the internalized narratives that have been passed through generations of my family. As white people, we have inherited mistaken beliefs of our own goodness, benevolence, intelligence, deservedness, and merit. These myths are affirmed for us everyday in a world that privileges whiteness across media, government, institutions, and daily life. At the same time, throughout colonization, white settlers have been taught and pass on negative stereotypes of Indigenous people. Deficit-based views about Indigenous communities, families, and individuals were used to justify the mistreatment and violence enacted by government and religious institutions against Indigenous people. The idea that white people “know best” for Indigenous people and land persists, though we actually have significant knowledge gaps and deficits. The legal field upholds these pillars of whiteness, and actively fuels narratives of white superiority.

All this to say, it is crucial for white people to keep our racial identity and social location in mind as we work to build relationships and engage in work with Indigenous people. It’s the only way we will be able to confront our unconscious biases and false beliefs about ourselves and Indigenous people. Being open about who we are as white settlers allows us to approach the learning and work humbly, ready to make mistakes and learn from them, ready to amplify and uplift the voices of Indigenous people.

When I think about the learning my family has already gone through over the years, I’m hopeful for the younger generations. My white nieces and nephews are already learning about colonization, residential schools, and racism in school (which I certainly never learned about in public school). They are learning about white privilege and unearned settler benefits. And they are growing up with teachings, values, and lessons that were generously shared with my family during our time living in Indigenous community.

None of this is to discount the importance of kinship ties, custom adoptions, and the right of every Indigenous community to determine its own membership. As a white person, I can only speak to my own racial identity, development, and what I have learned from my work in anti-racism about the importance of speaking from my own racial identity. So many of our colonial systems, values, and institutions leave a legacy of violence and oppression, it truly is incumbent on those of us raised and trained within them to question our beliefs and behaviours, and be accountable for actively making change.

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