The Indigenous Identity Act (IIA) will protect Indigenous identity across all sectors of Canadian society, including the film and television industries.
The case of Canadian actor and filmmaker Michelle Latimer, who claimed—falsely—that she was of Indigenous descent, has highlighted the unscrupulous practice of “Indigenous identity theft,” which many non-Native people use to benefit themselves at the expense of Indigenous Canadians.
Tamara Bell, a veteran of Canadian film and television and a member of the Haida Nation, Raven Clan, is one of many Indigenous Canadians who seek to end this unfortunate and destructive practice. Bell is proposing a bill that protects Indigenous identity across all sectors of the Canadian economy – the film and television industry included. Inspired by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (1935, revised 1990) in the United States, the IIA will mete out stiff punishment to those who assume Indigenous identity without merit and who secure benefits for themselves that they do not deserve.
“There has been a substantial rise in opportunistic crime of Indigenous identity,” says Bell. “Without consequences, the continual habitual theft of our identity destroys reconciliation and erodes the relationship between Indigenous communities and those who strive to mend the genocidal history of our country.”
The Indigenous Identity Act (IIA) is intended to restore trust in the wake of the Michelle Latimer scandal. Latimer, director of a television series, Trickster, resigned from that show after a CBC investigation revealed that her claims of being “Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Que” were refuted by members of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, an Algonquin nation based in Quebec.
The IIA, properly implemented and enforced, will deter non-Indigenous Canadians from attempting to co-opt Indigenous identity as a “fast track” to personal, professional, and financial gain. Left unchecked, Indigenous identity theft will continue to erode the sovereignty of Indigenous people and any progress that has been made toward reconciliation. The IIA is supported by Indigenous elders across Canada who recognize the long-term value of validating Indigenous identity as a bulwark against blatant appropriation and exploitation of Indigenous identity, culture, and intellectual property.
In order to ensure that opportunities and benefits intended for Indigenous people actually reach Indigenous people, the support of media entities like the Indigenous Screen Office (ISO), the Canada Media Fund (CMF), Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board (NFB), and the CBC is essential. Though the Michelle Latimer case continues to draw significant media attention, the truth is that most cases of Indigenous identity theft go undetected and unpunished. Any individual who claims Indigenous identity must be able to prove a connection to the broader Indigenous community through his or her Nation.
“We are asking our elders to stand with us. Many have already expressed their support and are standing with us here today. We offer our sincerest thanks. We also hope to secure even more support as the IIA moves forward,” says Bell.