The takedown of Buffy Sainte-Marie is painful to witness

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The story was explosive. But with too many holes in the content, it should have been left untold. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 6, 2023.

OTTAWA—The takedown of Buffy Sainte-Marie is painful to witness. The CBC claims its evidence is airtight, but there appears to be a number of holes in the exposé about Sainte-Marie not being Indigenous.

According to the CBC, the singer-songwriter’s claim to Indigenous roots has been contradicted by her birth certificate and even some members of her own family.

The birth certificate upon which the CBC based its story says that Sainte-Marie was born to parents Albert and Winifred Santamaria. Sainte-Marie says that she was adopted by Albert and Winifred, who changed their names to Sainte-Marie after the war because of racism against Italians.

The CBC story claimed “many instances over the years of contradictory statements from the singer regarding that personal history.”

The story recounted how many awards and recognitions that had come to Sainte-Marie in part because of her unique status as an Indigenous artist in a white world.

Sainte-Marie was named Billboard’s Music Award for Top Artist in 1964 just after she was described by The New York Times as “one of the most promising new talents on the folk scene today.”

But it also laid out the multiple times that Saint-Marie had self-ascribed different Indigenous origins, claiming that she has been Algonquin, Mi’kmaq, and Cree at different times to different news outlets.

Former Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong had this to say on X about the claim that Sainte-Marie was not adopted because of her birth certificate. “Hey @CBCNews your Buffy Pretendian story rings false. I did quick search of adoptee births in Mass: ‘An amended birth certificate, created after an adoption is finished, lists the name of the adoptive parents just as if the child had been born to them originally.’ ”

There were certainly a number of inconsistencies in the way that Sainte-Marie recounted her life story at various moments in her career.

But it is undeniable that she fought for Indigenous rights at a time when no one was really listening very hard.

Some have claimed she appropriated this identity to further her career.

But given that she burst onto the folk scene in the 1960s, it is pretty hard to see how her Indigenous heritage claim would have been developed simply to support her rise in the music world.

In the 1960s, being Indigenous was no ticket to success. Instead, negative stereotypes prompted many Indigenous Peoples to hide their identity.

Sainte-Marie was consistent in her fight for Indigenous Peoples, and her claim to attachment to her people.

She wasn’t the first to be accused of Indigenous appropriation, and she won’t be the last.

Last week, Newfoundland Premier Andrew Furey visited Labrador to deliver a series of apologies to residential school survivors. Over a few days, the premier visited five Inuit communities to deliver solemn apologies.

That visit happened a month after Furey made a similar apology to the NunatuKavut Community Council.

The premier’s first apology was attacked by members of the Innu nation and the government of Nunatsiavut, claiming the NunatuKavut community has no legitimate Inuit identity.

That difference of opinion was virally reflected in the House of Commons two years ago when the Inuit Member of Parliament attacked her colleague in Labrador for falsely claiming her Inuit heritage.

Then-NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq was forced to apologize for a Twitter post in which she demanded that Liberal MP Yvonne Jones “validate her Inuk-ness.”

Jones characterized the attack as “lateral racism,” and told the media that “I don’t think I have to prove my identity … I know who I am. I know who my grandmother and my great-grandmother was … I can trace my Inuit history in Labrador back to the early 1800’s.”

But the very public fight was a reflection of the challenges that come with clarifying Indigenous lineage.

The CBC obviously thought it was doing a deep dive into the real story behind Buffy Sainte-Marie.

But the backlash caused by the story, and the questions around adoption practices more than 80 years ago have not been fully answered.

It is a disservice to Sainte-Marie’s lifelong Indigenous commitment to believe that a colonial birth certificate holds all the answers to her birth history.

The story was explosive. But with too many holes in the content, it should have been left untold.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.