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Social media users expressed outrage this past weekend as Instagram posts surfaced showing what appeared to be a young white student celebrating her scholarship intended for Indigenous youth. The girl’s family says they have a legitimate claim to Indigenous ancestry based on genealogical records, but Indigenous leaders are still skeptical.
Ainsley Whynacht, an 18-year-old still in high school, was announced as the winner of the 2019 Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) scholarship. The scholarship required applicants to submit an essay. NSGEU states in a Facebook post that Whynacht’s looked at “how the lack of access to public services has negatively affected the lives of Indigenous people.”
On her private Instagram, Whynacht makes light about the scholarship, calling it a “college essay on treatment of indigenous kids in school” and jokes about how the scholarship selection committee didn’t notice she was the “whitest person ever.”
In another post, Whynacht is seen holding up a bottle of tanning lotion, posting “its time for ya girl to fake tan or else that’s gonna be embarrassing.”
As backlash began to pour in after her private Instagram posts were screenshotted and distributed widely on the wider social media world, Whynacht was confronted with angry responses and demands to NSGEU to rescind the scholarship she had been offered. Whynacht responded by posting that she had “said I’m sorry already” and “all I did was write an essay.”
Later, in a conversation posted to Facebook, Whynacht attempted to demonstrate her Indigenous heritage by presenting a status card from the Woodland Metis nation, a highly controversial Metis nation that has been at the center of a debate about whether their claims to Indigenous identity are legitimate.
The Woodland Metis have been contested by various Indigenous scholars and groups, having no official Government recognition or recognition by the Métis National Council. The Nova Scotia-based Eastern Woodland Metis, of which Whynacht presented status from, no longer has an active website. The Grand Chief, Mary Lou Parker, passed away in summer 2019 and there appears to be no attempt to maintain the group.
After a Supreme Court decision in 2006 expanded the scope of who could claim to be Metis, the number of people self-identifying as Metis surged by over 125 percent by 2016, with new self-described Metis groups springing up in eastern Canada.
Cheryl Maloney, a Mi’kmaq activist and Professor of Political Science at Cape Breton University, notes the Eastern Woodland Metis have no connection to the cultural heritage or history of the recognized Metis of Canada. “The Metis in Nova Scotia are not actually tied to the constitutionally protected Metis. And if they are, they would be people who come to Nova Scotia and bring their status with them.”
Maloney says the creeping “raceshifting” of non-Indigenous people self-identifying as Indigenous is reflective of an “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality. Maloney says Wynacht’s story is rooted in racism, fraud, and entitlement.
“Nobody wanted to be Indigenous when there was so much racism, and [the Government] was stealing your kids, and the odds were against you—no one was aspiring to live that reality,” Maloney says.
Maloney said she doesn’t know about whether the scholarship can legally be rescinded from Wynacht, but hopes NSGEU learns from this mistake and consults the local Indigenous community in creating future criteria for the scholarship.
“They need to include Indigenous people in these deliberations,” she says. “If they did, they’re likely to get a young person from the community who everyone is looking up to as a future leader. We know who they are. We see them. We have young people who are destined for great things if given the opportunity.”
The Post Millennial reached out to Ainsley Wynacht, and received comment from her mother who called the outrage a “non-story”.
“Ainsley is Indigenous and has provided proof,” she said. She claims the family has documentation from the Universite de Ste. Anne demonstrating their Indigenous heritage.
Ainsley’s mother says the document, a genealogical family tree, demonstrates Indigenous heritage from the Mi’kmaq nation on her mother’s and grandmother’s side.
“It confirmed that we are indigenous. We had to provide baptismal certificates for the three latest generations. We went through the church, sent the baptismal information to the university and they did the rest of the research.”
When asked to see the documentaion, Ainsley’s mother said they would provide the document to NSGEU and The Post Millennial upon the family’s return to their home from their cottage.
Jarvis Googoo, a non-practising lawyer in Halifax and a Mi’kmaq from We’koqma’q First Nation, says connection to the Mi’kmaq community is more important than simply having an ancestor or two.
“I know I am distantly Irish, but this does not make me Irish.” he says, “I know I am Mi’kmaq because that is all I know, it is all my family has been.” adding that the Whynachts, or anyone else who believed themselves to hold claim to Indigenous ancestry, needed to approach the Indigenous community—not the government.
“Some claimants say they have one ancestor from the 1800s [so that] makes them Mi’kmaq or Metis. For me, what makes me Mi’kmaq is my mother was Mi’kmaq, and my grandmother was Mi’kmaq.”
Googoo says he hopes NSGEU rescinds the scholarship, “That is scholarship money that should and could have went to an actual Mi’kmaq Indigenous person instead. And if it can’t be recinded, then going forward the NSGEU, or any other organization wants to try and ‘help,’ they need to engage with us and we can teach them how to do it right.”
The NSGEU Facebook page issued a response Friday to the online outrage in a now-deleted post.
“We are aware of the social media posts circulating about the recipient of the NUPGE Scholarship for Indigenous Students, this information has been passed on to the National Union, NUPGE, who administers this award, so they may investigate this matter further,” read part of the statement.
“It’s unfortunate that people say offensive things on social media that they end up regretting,” read the rest of the NSGEU statement.
Prior to the interview with The Post Millennial, Ainsley’s mother said she was unaware of the controversies surrounding the Woodland Metis and had enrolled her daughter and herself with them in an effort to participate more actively with what she thought was a legitimate local Indigenous group.
On her daughter’s comments, she says she knows they were “in incredibly poor judgement,” stating that she had been very upset when she saw them. On her daughter’s reasoning, Tanya says that “she was being bullied for looking ‘too white to be Indigenous’ so she posted that she’d use fake tan to not look so white.”
Ainsley wrote an apology to NSGEU late last week.
“I would like to sincerely apologize that these pictures and their captions were so grossly misinterpreted and I assure you that I meant no disrespect towards the union nor Indigenous people,” said Ainsley in her apology letter.
“The colour of my skin does not erase my heritage, or my anger towards their treatment that I wrote very passionately about in the essay that won me this scholarship,” the apology continues. “Even the suggestion that I would fake my ethnic background is truly insulting for me and is just another example of people not taking my ancestry seriously just because I do not exactly ‘look the role’, as I have been told.”
The $1,500 scholarship goes to the winner of an essay competition who is entering their first year of post-secondary education.
Ainsley’s mother also sent The Post Millennial a sample of some of the death threats Ainsley received as a result of her comments, which ranged from wishes her “family dies in a house fire” to Instagram users messaging her to “eat sh*t you useless wh*re.”
Jarvis Googoo says the threats made against the Whynachts are “plain horrible,” adding, “there is a great and peaceful way to discuss this… Our treaties were based upon peaceful friendship and that is how I like to discuss this and educate.”
The Post Millennial reached out to NSGEU and NUGPE but did not receive comment from them by the time of publication.