‘Pretendians’ are what Indigenous people call non-Indigenous people who claim that they are Indigenous.
Government financial incentives reserved exclusively for Indigenous people – supposedly, to achieve equity – have created pretendians, who are increasingly called out by other Indigenous people for not being Indigenous enough.
Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden and filmmaker Michelle Latimer (maker of the now-cancelled CBC Trickster series) are both examples of this phenomenon. Both claimed to be Indigenous but fellow Indigenous artists decided they weren’t Indigenous enough.
Haida filmmaker Tamara Bell wants the federal government to draft legislation that would criminalize pretendians.
How would a person’s Indigenous identity be measured? A blood test? An odious racial status card like apartheid South Africa’s? (Oops, Canada still has those.)
But it’s not only Indigenous people who are having difficulty sorting out who belongs to their group and who doesn’t qualify for membership. Recall the recent squabbling between Métis groups, with Western Métis arguing that an Ontario group claiming to be Métis should be denied that status, only to have another group claiming to be Métis pop up in the Maritimes.
And these unseemly fights aren’t limited to Indigenous people. As a direct result of new federal government legislation, the Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative (which gives Black-owned businesses funds based solely on the skin colour of applicants) claims that some applicants aren’t Black enough to qualify for these purely race-based funds.
Apart from thoroughly embarrassing most Indigenous, Métis and Black citizens – who want nothing to do with special treatment – what do all of these petty disputes have in common?
Free money based only on a person’s claimed racial identity.
Dividing people into racial or ethnic tribes and treating them differently has always been a bad idea, no matter what the motive. And the underlying premise of such legislation – that treating groups differently is equity and will somehow lead to people moving up the socio-economic ladder – is clearly false. Equity means equal outcomes for all – Karl Marx’s impossible and deadly goal.
How does giving a middle-class author or filmmaker extra money provide an opportunity for people stuck in poverty in uneconomic communities? How does giving an Indigenous academic a professorship they’re not qualified for or a privileged Black bureaucrat a promotion based on skin colour possibly benefit the marginalized?
These race-based programs are an insult to those who have achieved success on their merit and hard work.
Dividing people into racial and ethnic groups and treating them like incompetents was wrong in the past and it’s just as wrong today. It leads only to division and resentment. We already live with the shame of the racist Indian Act that many Indigenous leaders refuse to let go.
Our federal government should be promoting equality – equality under the law and equality of opportunity – and not its divisive opposite, equity. We come from many ethnic backgrounds but we’re all Canadians.
Yes, those who need a helping hand should be given one. But government programs should be based on need, not race.
Canadians should reject legislation based on race or ethnicity.
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Brian is one of our contributors. For interview requests, click here.