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WFP: Indigenous identity is about more than self-declaration

September 11, 2018 — 

As U of M professor and Free Press columnists Niigaan Sinclair writes in the Winnipeg Free Press on Sept. 10, 2018:


In the early 1970s, there were about a dozen Indigenous students at the University of Manitoba. One of them, my father, says he could go months without seeing anyone like him.

Last week, the university reported 2,374 self-declared Indigenous enrollees….

While official numbers aren’t released until the end of September, it appears this will be a record year for Indigenous post-secondary enrolment on the prairies. At the University of Regina there are approximately 1,800 self-declared Indigenous students. The University of Winnipeg comes in around 1,200 and Brandon University at just under 500. Red River College has around 1,500 self-declared Indigenous students.

Conservatively, that’s ten thousand self-declared Indigenous post-secondary students in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

That’s ten thousand lawyers, nurses, teachers, artists, doctors, plumbers and business owners.

Just on the prairies. This year.

Next year will be more.

In an ironic return to the 18th century – when Indigenous communities cared for all segments of society – Indigenous peoples will soon be part of every workplace and industry.

Statistics Canada shows Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing and youngest community in Manitoba. According to the 2016 census, 92,810 people identify as First Nations, Métis, or Inuit and live in Winnipeg – a 37% increase from the 2011 census.

This is a good thing. It’s a sign that Indigenous peoples – historically the most disenfranchised and under-resourced group in Canada – are overcoming obstacles in schooling. It’s also a sign Indigenous student support services are helping.

These statistics also point to something crucial – the necessity of educating non-Indigenous students about Indigenous peoples. One of the most necessary skills in the future will be the ability to live, work, and act competently with Indigenous peoples.

But what these statistics really show is a remarkable increase in pride. In 2018, saying you’re Indigenous carries more pride than it did even a decade ago.

This has led to another challenge: the issue of self-declaration.

Nowadays, many Manitobans self-declare an Indigenous background. Most do so by citing a long-ago ancestor on a branch of their family tree. Some claim a “percentage” of Indigenous blood.

Blood is in fact how the Indian Act determines a “status” Indian or not. This is based in the thinking that the introduction of non-Indigenous people to an Indigenous bloodline eventually dilutes and erases Indigenous identity.

The problem of course is that Indigenous identity doesn’t work at all like this….

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