Three Canadian women have been charged after allegedly pretending to be Inuit to receive benefits, in a “first of its kind” case.
Karima Manji, 59, and her twin daughters Amira and Nadya Gill, 25, are facing two counts of fraud each.
Police said the sisters posed as the adopted children of an indigenous woman and defrauded two local organisations to secure grants and scholarships “only available to Inuit beneficiaries”.
Inuit representatives have condemned the alleged deception, calling it “another form of colonisation” amid part of what they say is a wider trend of non-indigenous Canadians claiming indigenous heritage.
Canada’s Inuit communities in the sparsely populated Arctic territory of Nunavut are able to receive benefits under a 1993 land claim settlement.
Registration of indigenous status is overseen by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc (NTI), the legal representative body for Inuits in the territory.
The NTI announced earlier this year that it was “aware of possible fraudulent enrollment” of the Gill sisters.
It came after Ms Manji claimed that the women were adopted and identified an Inuk woman as their birth mother. The NTI described the case as a “first of its kind”.
The three women, who are from the province of Ontario, were removed from the NTI’s list of beneficiaries following an investigation and the matter was referred to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
The RCMP said the women defrauded two local organisations between October 2016 and September 2022.
‘Another form of colonisation’
The woman whom Ms Manji claimed to be her daughter’s birth mother, Kitty Noah, denied the claim before her death in July.
The daughters, both graduates of Queen’s University in Ontario, launched an online business selling face masks featuring designs by indigenous artists in 2021.
They received money from two groups, the Kakivak Association and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.
Claiming indigenous status also allowed them to receive scholarships awarded by Indspire, a Canadian indigenous charity, electricity company Hydro One and the Royal Bank of Canada.
A spokesperson for the bank said that before 2021 scholarship applicants were able to self-identify as indigenous, but the requirements had since been updated.
President of the NTI Aluki Kotierk has called for the women to return the money they received and characterised the alleged fraud as “another form of colonisation”.
He told broadcaster CBC: “You’ve wanted to take our language away from us. You’ve wanted to take our culture away from us. Now you’re trying to claim our identity? It’s just flabbergasting.”
The NTI described the case as an “isolated” incident, but said it planned to strengthen its enrollment criteria, including requiring applicants to provide an official copy of their birth certificate, in future.
The three defendants are due in court in the northern city of Iqaluit on Oct 30.