After investigations revealed no evidence of her Indigenous heritage, a Canadian Indigenous public health expert was placed on leave by both public institutions where it was her research.
Carrie Bourassa, or Morning Star Bear’s, colleagues and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigated and failed to find any Indigenous relatives.
The University of Saskatchewan professor and the scientific director of the Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced her suspension on Monday.
Her employers initially supported Bourassa’s Indigenous ancestry when she was questioned. However, both institutions have since confirmed that she is on leave and that the university has opened an investigation into her Indigenous claims.
Bourassa claims to be Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit but a statement released by her sister, Jody Burnett, on behalf of her family says the Indigenous public health expert’s: ‘description of our family is inaccurate, not rooted in fact and moreover is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not Carrie Bourassa is Métis.’
For nearly 20 years Bourassa, who is now in her late 40s, said that she was born into a family with Métis, Anishnaabe and Tlingit roots but has never shown any documentation proving her ancestry.
Carrie Bourassa, or Morning Star Bear, is her spirit name and she has been removed from her positions at the University of Saskatchewan as well as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
She has recently come under fire as her family, colleagues, and an investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation claim she has no Indigenous hertiage
Bourassa, one of Canada’s leading experts on Indigenous public health, claims to be Métis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit but has never proven her touted Indigenous genealogy
Métis is an Indigenous community from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta parts of Ontario, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and the Northern United States. The Anishinaabe are an ethnic group of Indigenous people including the Métis community.
The Tlingit tribe is a small Indigenous group from the Yukon and British Columbia.
‘My name is Morning Star Bear,’ she said, tearing up at the beginning of her 2019 Ted Talk where she wore a bright blue shawl and Métis sash while carrying a feather.
‘I’m just going to say it — I’m emotional,’ she said, telling the crowd that she could feel her ancestors, and in particularly, her Métis grandfather, in the room.
‘I’m Bear Clan. I’m Anishinaabe Métis from Treaty Four Territory,’ Bourassa said, explaining that she grew up in a dysfunctional family plagued by addiction, violence and racism due to ‘intergenerational trauma’ stemming from her family’s ‘half-breed’ status.
She repeatedly claimed that her grandfather was Métis and shared heartbreaking stories of the racism they experienced and the ways her grandfather tried to pass down Métis traditions.
She has since changed her story explaining that she became Métis in her 20s after being adopted into the community by her grandfather’s friend, Clifford Laroque, following her grandfather’s passing. Laroque, who was the president of a Métis local organization, has since died.
“Even though Clifford died, these bonds are deeper than death because the family has treated me as if they were their blood family. In turn, I serve the Métis community to the best of my ability,’ she wrote.
‘In our Métis ways, in the event of a loss, community members would adopt the individual who had no family and they would then automatically be seen as family,’ she continued. We refer to this as custom adoption. Those adoptions were more meaningful than colonial adoptions and had stronger bonds.
Bourassa has not explained why she claimed for the majority of her career that she was born into a Métis family.
Bourassa shared this slide of family photos during her 2019 Ted Talk when she discussed her difficult upbringing during which her Métis grandfather, Ladislav ‘Laddie’ Knezacek, (pictured right) inspired her to work hard to break the cycle of ‘intergenerational trauma’
Bourassa’s parents Ron (left) and Diane Weibel (right), have not directly commented on their daughter’s claims
Jody Burnett, Bourassa’s sister, released a statement on the family’s behalf which stated the ‘description of our family is inaccurate, not rooted in fact and moreover is irrelevant to the issue of whether or not Carrie Bourassa is Métis’
In 2012, she admitted that she knew she didn’t qualify for the Métis citizenship registry, which Wendy Gervais, the elected representative for the Métis Nation–Saskatchewan (MN-S), said is ‘relatively simple,’ according to CBC.
The MN-S governs over the Regina region, where Bourassa claims her Métis membership with First Indigenous Riel Métis Local #33 (FIRM 33). Gervais confirmed that is not a part of the Métis Nation.
She also claims Tlingit ancestry, which she said was first revealed to her 16 years ago when she received her spirit name Ts’iotaat Kutx Ayanaha s’eek- Morning Star Bear- in the Tlingit language and then confirmed to her by a Tlingit relative in October 2017.
Bourassa’s coworkers became more skeptical about her Indigenous ancestry, and they decided to investigate her ancestral lineage.
Caroline Tait, a Métis professor and medical anthropologist at the U of S who has worked with Bourassa for over 10 years, said she began to question her colleague’s ancestral claims as Bourassa began noting ties to the Anishinaabe and Tlingit communities and dressing in more stereotypically Indigenous styles.
Tait stated that everyone cheers and makes claps. It’s beautiful. ‘It is the performance that we all want from Indigenous people — this performance of being the stoic, spiritual, culturally attached person [with]We can identify them because we’ve seen them in Disney movies.
Tait said she and other colleagues doubts peaked when they learned that Bourassa’s sister had stopped claiming Métis ancestry after looking further into her genealogy.
Tait confronted Bourassa over what she initially thought were rumors. Bourassa replied in an email: ‘I have twice done my genealogy and received Métis local memberships and I am accepted in the community.’ She has not shared her genealogies.
Winona Wheeler, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and Janet Smylie, a Métis family medicine professor from the University of Toronto who worked with Bourassa, joined Tait in her suspicions.
‘It makes you feel a bit sick,’ said Smylie. ‘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.’
Wheeler said, “When that TEDx was shown, to be honest, I was horrified at how hard she was trying pretend to be Indigenous.” “You don’t have the right to tell people who you are to gain legitimacy, get funding, or to get positions. This is abuse.
A colleague’s research into Bourassa’s ancestry revealed that: ‘There wasn’t anywhere in that family tree where there were any Indigenous persons,’ Wheeler told CBC.
Colleagues of the Indigenous public health expert grew skeptical of her Indigenous ancestry as she began to claim connections to more Indigenous communities and dress in more stereotypical Indigenous garb (Pictured: University of Saskatchewan professor Caroline Tait, left, Bourassa, center, and Marg Friesen, minister of health for the Métis Nation Saskatchewan, right)
The CIHR and the U of S have suspended Bourassa amid the allegations of her false Indigenous ancestry. The U of S has opened an investigation into her alleged Indigenous lineage (Pictured: University of Saskatchewan president Dr. Peter Stoicheff, left, Bourassa, center, and vice-president research Karen Chad, right)
Instead, they claim to have found that Bourassa’s roots come from Eastern Europe, namely Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakia.
CBC reported that they also: ‘traced her ancestry back into Europe’ and were unable to locate any Indigenous ancestor.
Bourassa claims that her great-grandmother, Johanna Salaba, was Tlingit and that: ‘She married an immigrant. They moved from the far north B.C. They settled in Saskatchewan and had a child.
CBC claims however that Salaba left Russia with her sister and mother in 1911. According to Census records and passenger manifests, Salaba was not able to speak English and was listed as a Czech speaking Russian.
Marie Salaba (a 99-year old relative) confirmed that Bourassa’s great-grandmother spoke Czech.
Salaba married a Russian-born farmer with whom she shared 10 children, one of which was Ladislav ‘Laddie’ Knezacek- Bourassa’s grandfather who she has repeatedly claimed was Métis.
“This grandfather that” [Bourassa]Wheeler stated, “was always talking about wasn’t Indigenous.”
Burnett, Bourassa’s sister, told CBC: ‘growing up as a child, I didn’t identify as Métis.’
She explained that she was first told of her alleged Métis ancestry in 2002 when her sister invited her to a meeting with Larocque when he ‘provided confirmation that our family had [Métis]Lineage in B.C. and insisted she ‘should be confident in representing myself as such.’
‘I was not shown any documentation — rather, it was shared with me verbally.’ Laroque then provided Burnett with a certificate of membership in a Métis local in 2006. For years Burnett claimed Métis roots even accepting scholarships due to her supposed Indigenous genealogy and writing her PhD dissertation on gambling issues in Indigenous communities.
But in 2014, Burnett stopped claiming Métis roots after her: ‘husband completed a family tree through a genealogical software program. From that point on, I did not feel certain of my heritage and as such, have stopped identifying as Métis.’
‘She is not Métis. She is the modern-day Grey Owl,” Tait said, referring to a British conservationist who convinced people of their false Native American heritage in the early 1900s.
Bourassa’s colleagues, many who do belong to Indigenous communities, are highly offended by her claims and sent a letter with the information that they gathered to the U of S in an official misconduct complaint, which Bourassa said was dismissed.
Bourassa was initially defended by the U of S and CIHR, but they have since announced that she is now on an indefinite leave.
According to the university, a statement was released saying that Dr. Bourassa has been placed on leave and she has been relieved of all her duties in the USask College of Medicine’s Department of Community Health and Epidemiology.
Dr. Bourassa will not be returning to any faculty duties during the investigation.
“The University of Saskatchewan has carefully reviewed Dr. Carrie Bourassa’s responses to recent articles that challenged her Indigenous identity and interviews.
“The university has serious concerns about the additional information in Dr. Bourassa’s responses to media and the potential harm this information could cause Indigenous individuals and communities.
CIHR president Michael Strong also released a statement: ‘Today I spoke with Dr. Carrie Bourassa, scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health (CIHR-IIPH), and we agreed that she will step away from all of her duties as scientific director of the Institute,
“Dr. Bourassa will therefore be on an indefinite leave with no pay effective immediately.
“I acknowledge the pain felt by Indigenous Peoples as a consequence of this matter and would like CIHR to reiterate its absolute commitment to reconciliation, continuing to accelerate Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination in health research,” the statement read.
Following publication of the CBC investigation’s findings, she released a statement on October 27. She claimed that the outlet ran a smear campaign. She said she was’shocked by the recent attack on me identity’.
Bourassa didn’t comment on the news of her suspension or the investigation into the family tree.