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Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity

by Darryl Leroux

In his new book, Darryl Leroux, an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University on unceded Mi’kmaq nation lands, explores the phenomenon of white, French-descendant settlers claiming Indigenous identity for contemporary benefits, such as hunting and fishing rights. The now-infamous 2003 Supreme Court of Canada Powley decision marks the moment at which the so-called Eastern “métis” began to emerge. By connecting their lineage to one of the few Indigenous women who married French men 300 to 350 years ago, settlers are now able to claim “métis” nationhood, establish membership organizations, and use their claim to politically oppose authentic Indigenous rights. Leroux’s project is to make this process of false self-Indigenization visible and, as a white ally, to counter the claims that weaken, harm, and disenfranchise Indigenous peoples.

Leroux acknowledges that his “arguments might invoke some discomfort.” But the author is keen to remind readers that “as much as this study may appear principally to involve research into indigeneity, Indigenous identity, and/or Indigenous ancestry, it tells us much more about the shifting politics of whiteness, white privilege, and white supremacy.”

To achieve his goal, Leroux fixes the terms “Métis,” “métis” and “métissage” in their historical and contemporary uses. He highlights the fact that French settlers who had children with Indigenous women were rare. In the early days, these children became “Frenchified,” while later they became racialized and found themselves excluded from French society. Today, settlers are using the rare but present historical basis for Indigenous and French mixed families in New France to underpin their claim to contemporary Indigenous identity.

One important concept Leroux explores is kinship, and how this differs from genealogy. The French settlers claiming Indigenous ties do so from only a distant genealogical claim in order to secure rights. Race-shifting ignores kinship, focusing instead on “blood,” thereby echoing the notion of blood quantum, a well-known, problematic way to delineate who is and who isn’t Indigenous. At the same time, race-shifting allows these settlers an exemption from accepting any blame for colonialism and its violences.

The first half of Distorted Descent follows Leroux’s ethnography of genealogical forums and addresses three different types of claims (lineal, aspirational, and lateral) white settlers use in the race-shifting process. The second half analyzes documents from two “métis” organizations in Quebec enacting a process of race-shifting to “consolidate forms of white power.” Distorted Descent makes visible the processes behind these instances of race-shifting and how organizations exploit this activity in the context of Canada’s current political landscape where Indigeniety and reconciliation are key terms.

Leroux’s absolutely needed and timely study unpacks the contemporary practice of white settlers self-Indigenizing – a practice that is “tricky to study, since race shifters use the language of decolonization” – while also highlighting how this process actively harms Indigenous peoples and uplifts whiteness.