Views / Opinion

Jasmine Kabatay: Andrea Reimer deserves to celebrate her newfound Indigenous heritage

A Vancouver city councillor is grappling with a newfound identity after she was contacted by her half-sisters.

Andrea Reimer has served as a city councillor in Vancouver since 2008. She will not be seeking re-election in the 2018 civic election.

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

Andrea Reimer has served as a city councillor in Vancouver since 2008. She will not be seeking re-election in the 2018 civic election.

Indigenous identity can be complicated to acknowledge.

Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer, who was adopted when she was six months old, recently found out she has Métis and Cree ancestry after her two half-sisters tracked her down.

But upon learning about her new identity, she had mixed feelings. She told CBC, "It feels like I'm forsaking a birth family and a heritage to not acknowledge it… But I feel like if I do acknowledge it, I'm assuming an identity that isn't mine to assume.”

Unsure of how she should handle her newfound heritage, she spoke to Ian Campbell, a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation. He urged her to celebrate it.

I agree. Absolutely celebrate it.

She already advocated for Indigenous Peoples and reconciliation long before finding out her heritage, pushing for Vancouver street signs to feature Indigenous names and even learning the Skwomesh language.

I understand her apprehension. There is a history of people using Indigenous identity to gain something, such as writer and conservationist Archibald “Grey Owl” Belaney. It wasn’t until he died it was revealed he was a white man born in England.

But Reimer isn’t doing that at all.

In fact, when I reached out to speak with her about this story, she declined, telling me she needed to be with her family and support them. To me, this doesn’t sound like someone using newfound ancestry to gain a higher public profile.

It’s when people claim Indigenous ancestry without acknowledging their responsibility for their relationships with actual Indigenous people that leaves a bad taste. I absolutely do not care how someone identifies — as far as I’m concerned, that’s their business.

But if they’re adamant about being part Indigenous and aren’t working to have a relationship with the people or culture they represent, or even understand the issues Indigenous Peoples face, that’s when it becomes a problem for me.

Take Joseph Boyden. He used his claimed Indigenous heritage to tell Indigenous stories, and gained a fame and fortune from doing so. But back in December 2016, an APTN investigation called into question Boyden’s Indigenous roots. In response weeks later he told CBC he would pull back from speaking for Indigenous Peoples, that people with “deeper roots” should.

When people like Reimer, who have been adopted or displaced, want to learn about their Indigenous identity and make a connection, it can be difficult in light of what happened to Boyden and the reactions it garnered.  

But I will always support people and their journey to understanding. Stories like Boyden’s may cause doubts, but a story like Reimer’s, who is doing the hard work of reconnecting to a family, shows responsibility to her heritage.

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