Concordia the latest university to face questions over professor's claim to being Indigenous

Concordia University's downtown campus is seen in Montreal on November 14, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Another situation of alleged false Indigenous identity is playing out at a Canadian university, with a professor at Concordia University reportedly suspended after her claim to being Cherokee was called into question.

Jessica Bardill is an associate professor in the school's English department, specializing in teaching Indigenous and Native American literature.

In an official biography published by Stanford University in 2013, when Bardill gave a talk there, she described herself as "of mixed Cherokee, Irish, Scottish, and Swiss descent, not partialized by that mixture but made multiply whole." Before Concordia, most of her career took place in the U.S.

However, doubts have been circulating in academic circles for at least a year about whether there is, in fact, any basis for that claim to being Cherokee.

According to French-language publication Le Droit Numerique, Bardill has been suspended by Concordia, possibly as long ago as last March. The outlet only cited faculty rumours.

Bardill has not yet responded to a request for comment from CTV News.

On Friday, academics began to come forward explaining more about the background. 

Another case of false Indigenous ID claims. In March, Concordia prof Jessica Bardill, a long-time colleague, informed me & others of her situation. We agreed she would step back from our mutual projects. She was encouraged to go public with her story. https://t.co/63AfjZ1bTX

— Kim TallBear (@KimTallBear) December 3, 2021

Concordia wouldn't confirm anything about the situation.

"As an employer, for reasons of confidentiality and privacy, we cannot discuss specific employment matters," Concordia spokesperson Vannina Maestracci told CTV News.

But among those following similar cases, the questions around Bardill have been common knowledge for months.

An online job-hunting forum for University of British Columbia grad students appears to have brought the issue to a head, when an anonymous person mentioned Bardill's name about a year ago in a casual discussion on a chat board.

"She not only passes as a Cherokee, she also passes as a bio-ethicist," the person wrote, without providing any evidence of the claim, but naming a certain professor who "knows everything."

But the whispers appear to have started significantly earlier. Darryl Leroux, a professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, wrote a book on the subject of this kind of "ethnicity-shifting" called Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity.

He told CTV that a colleague had contacted him about Bardill's claim, which he called false, in early 2020.

"We can no longer be surprised about these types of allegations surfacing at Canadian universities," Leroux said.

"Virtually every university is facing scrutiny over faculty members who have engaged in this type of fraudulent conduct."

In the most recent and high-profile instance, professor Carrie Bourassa of the University of Saskatchewan was fired over presenting herself as Métis, Anishnaabe and Tlingit, but with no proof.

Bourassa had a job in the limelight, representing the part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research that focused on Indigenous health.

In the wake of the scandal, the University of Saskatchewan promised to adopt new policies for checking who's actually Métis, using a citizenship registry of the province's official Métis nation, rather than taking an applicant's word for it.

Aside from her teaching on literature, Bardill has also widely presented other research on Indigeneity -- much of her work focuses on the process of validating Cherokee identity, exploring whether "blood quantum," meaning a certain portion of genetic heritage, or DNA testing, is what defines someone as Indigenous.

Le Droit Numerique wrote that her position, when she was hired, wasn't reserved for Indigenous scholars, though Concordia could also have simply suspended her for lying, if that was the case.

However, Leroux said that posing falsely as Indigenous needs to be taken very seriously whenever such situations come to light.

"Indigenous identity fraud might seem trivial to some, but Indigenous scholars and communities have been crystal clear -- the harm it's causing to Indigenous peoples is immeasurable," he said.

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