By Isabel Vincent
December 1, 2021
-New York Post
Carrie Bourassa’s Instagram page describes her as an “Indigenous feminist” and “proud Metis” with an addiction to lattes.
Only her penchant for caffeine was true.
Bourassa, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan and a leading expert on indigenous issues, has been exposed as a fraud. A family tree prepared by a group of academics who were suspicious of her ancestral claims shows that Bourassa is of Swiss, Hungarian, Polish and Czechoslovakian origins and has not one ounce of indigenous blood.
Yet for decades, Bourassa has identified herself as Métis — a group recognized as one of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, along with First Nations and Inuit. She also claims some traces of Tlingit and Anishinaabe heritage in her background.
“When I was very young, I knew I was not a Caucasian person,” Bourassa recently told the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. “I knew there was something very different about me.”
In a 2019 Tedx Talk, Bourassa wore a blue woven cloak and held a feather as she introduced herself as Morning Star Bear, a spirit name translated from the Tlingit language. She said she grew up in a dysfunctional family that struggled with alcoholism and violence in the western Canadian city of Regina. Her only saving grace was the Métis grandfather she called “gramps,” who took her on excursions to tan hides, pick berries and gave her moccasins and mukluks — boots made of sealskin worn in the Canadian Arctic.
But after a recent report by Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, raised serious questions about Bourassa’s heritage, the University of Saskatchewan announced last month that it had placed her on paid leave while it conducts a sweeping independent investigation into her origins led by an attorney who is an expert on indigenous law.
Bourassa was also suspended as scientific director of the indigenous health branch of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. In recent days, university administrators and indigenous leaders across the country, who traditionally rely on self-identification in determining indigenous ancestry, are calling for more rigorous standards.
“It’s a crazy story,” said Caroline Tait, a Métis professor of medical anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan who has worked with Bourassa for more than 10 years and recently helped expose Bourassa’s origins. “It’s crazy that she got away with it for so long. The whole country is horrified.”
Carrie Bourassa, 48, grew up in a white middle-class family in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan with a population of just under 240,000 residents. Her father, Ron Weibel, was a small businessman who owned car cleaning companies in the city.
“We lived in Regina most of our lives, married young, had two children, started businesses of our own, one of which we ran for over 30 years,” said Weibel on his website, Berry Hills Estates, which sells custom homes near Katepwa Lake resort, an hour outside Regina.
“Our lives were hectic, to say the least, with two shops to run and two daughters with school and sports activities, we were always on the go!” continued Weibel, who is the president of Berry Hills Developments, according to his LinkedIn page.
But Bourassa remembers her childhood differently, and credited her grandfather for helping her escape a grim existence.
In the introduction to her 2017 book, “Listening to the Beat of Our Drum: Indigenous Parenting in Contemporary Society,” Bourassa describes her grandfather urging her to get an education to escape the poverty and violence that was rampant in her family, which included an alcoholic grandmother and absent parents.
“My gramps was gently whispering to me, and telling me I would be safe,” wrote Bourassa. “But he said something else — he said, ‘My girl, you will be the one to stop this. You are going to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. You do not want to be like this. You hear me?’”
Family photographs tell a different story. Bourassa is pictured as a little girl with her white maternal grandparents, Ladislav and Gertrude Knezacek. Ladislav, who was born in Saskatchewan in 1928, is also pictured in uniform. His family originated in Hungary, and Ladislav appears nothing like the Métis “gramps” Bourassa describes in her speeches. Gertrude’s family arrived in Canada from Bohemia, a part of Czechoslovakia, before she was born in 1933. Another photo shows Bourassa, her husband, Chad, and their two daughters happily celebrating Christmas.
Bourassa went on to become one of the most important indigenous health experts in Canada. In addition to her teaching position at the University of Saskatchewan, she was scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Indigenous Peoples’ Health, a federal agency that helps distribute millions of dollars in grants for indigenous health research in Canada. Bourassa once bragged that she made nearly $400,000 as an academic, a source told The Post.
In her personal narrative, Bourassa has long credited Clifford LaRocque, a Métis elder, long deceased, with helping her identify with the group when she was in her early 20s. She said LaRocque adopted her after he claimed to have researched her ancestry in 2002. Bourassa told the CBC that she never saw the proof he said he found. “He was a well-respected leader in my community,” Bourassa told a Canadian Senate panel in June 2012. “He knew many of the Métis families. Even though many of us had gaps in our histories, he was able to help fill those gaps with his immense historical and geographical knowledge.”
Both Bourassa and her younger sister, Jody Burnett, began to identify as Métis as young women. The designation came with a few perks, namely thousands of dollars in educational grants that the federal government typically hands out to indigenous Canadians. Both Bourassa and her sister would go on to earn PhDs in their respective fields. Burnett has a doctorate in educational psychology, and Bourassa earned her PhD in 2008 in indigenous health. Burnett did not return The Post’s requests for comment.
In the introduction to her thesis, which she completed in March 2008, Bourassa thanks the Weibels for their support. “I would also like to thank my parents, Ron and Diane Weibel who sacrificed so that I could achieve my dream. You have been cheering me on and encouraging me from the very beginning and I am so blessed to have you as my parents.”
Calls and an email to her parents were not returned this week.
Bourassa continued to identify as Métis as she rose in academe. But her sister renounced her own identification. Burnett hasn’t claimed to be Métis since 2014, she told the CBC, when 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.”
Burnett’s decision to stop identifying as Métis angered Bourassa. In a 2018 email to Tait viewed by The Post, Bourassa wrote, “My sister got thousands of dollars in Métis scholarships that put her through her Masters and PhD and I was so proud at first — until she was done and then would have nothing to do with the Métis people who supported her.”
Tait and other academics began to have doubts about Bourassa after a student questioned her background a few years ago, Tait told The Post.
“We began to map out her kinship,” said Tait. The effort resulted in a 77-page complaint that she and other academics presented to the University of Saskatchewan earlier this year. “We went to the school hat in hand and asked them if they could please take this on because we saw it as an example of research misconduct. A lot of us rely on Carrie for funding our projects, and the whole thing just seemed wrong.”
When university administrators refused to act on the complaint, Tait enlisted the help of the CBC. “At the time that they denied the claim, I told them we would work with a journalist to make it all public,” she said. “There’s been enormous outrage across the country over this.”
Bourassa, a mother of two daughters who is married to a retired Regina cop who also identifies as Métis, did not return The Post’s calls for comment, but has said that she has twice traced her own roots and has received memberships in local Métis groups in Regina. She said she didn’t take positions or funding away from indigenous people but built her career solely on her own merit.
A press release issued on her behalf by Team Bourassa — “an Indigenous collective who choose anonymity at this time” — said she is exercising her right to self-identify as indigenous and has not inappropriately taken opportunities or educational funding from indigenous people.
“Dr. Carrie Bourassa has not falsely identified as Indigenous nor taken space away from Indigenous peoples, either in the form of student funding, grants or career advancements,” the statement said. “She has earned her professional status and merit through hard work, self-funding and sheer determination.”