Editor’s Letter: The shameful legacy of Canada’s pretendian phenomenon

Editor’s Letter: The shameful legacy of Canada’s pretendian phenomenon

The shocking case of the Gill twins and their mom adds three more names to the long list of Canadians faking Indigeneity for personal gain

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

In 1930, a nine-toed, whiskey-pickled, adulterous Scot named Archibald Belaney hopped in a canoe and started calling himself Grey Owl. As a writer, conservationist and public speaker, he soon gained international acclaim and received visits from awestruck dignitaries. Belaney may not have been the first pretendian—a pejorative for someone falsely claiming Indigeneity—but he remains the best-known. Since his day, a long list of imposters has carried on his shameful legacy.

In 2016, that list grew a little longer. Amira and Nadya Gill were raised in Etobicoke, the twin daughters of a Tanzanian mother and a British father. Mom and Dad had a rocky relationship, and home life wasn’t exactly bliss, but the twins showed promise in athletics and academics. As high school came to an end, they stood on the cusp of a bright future.

Yet their mother, Karima Manji, decided aptitude wasn’t going to be enough. She knew about the many bursaries and grants available to First Nations, Inuit and Métis students in Canada. One glaring obstacle—the family’s lack of Indigeneity—should have been the end of it, but Manji wasn’t your average, law-abiding citizen. A year earlier, she’d been caught stealing $800,000 from March of Dimes, a charity for people with disabilities. She was charged and convicted but remained unrepentant.

Manji had spent some time in Iqaluit in the early ’90s and while there briefly dated a man who’d fathered seven kids with a woman named Kitty Noah. Noah had since battled substance abuse, and her living situation had become unstable. Perfect. On a government application form, Manji lied and claimed that she had adopted her twin daughters from Noah. Perhaps it was an off day for the folks reviewing applications, but soon enough, the case was approved. On paper, Nadya and Amira were officially Indigenous.

Amira (left) and Nadya Gill, who spent years cashing in on their falsified Inuit status

The benefits rolled in. Amira received one of 10 scholarships from RBC reserved for Indigenous students, worth $4,000 per year. She was awarded one of 15 ­scholarships from Hydro One dedicated to Indigenous students, worth $5,000. Both twins received bursaries from Indspire, a national charity that subsidizes education for Indigenous students, as well as nearly $160,000 in additional funding from two Inuit associations. They embraced their new identities with gusto. On campus at Queen’s, Amira hung out on the dorm floor reserved for Indigenous students and was centre stage during Indigenous Awareness Week.

Grey Owl died before the truth of his pathetic charade got out, but had he lived in the age of social media, it would have ended much sooner. In 2021, an informal network of amateur sleuths discovered the truth about the Gill sisters, and word spread quickly. Soon, the RCMP had zeroed in on the family.

As Sarah Treleaven explains in her shocking exposé, “The Great Pretenders,” this wasn’t some multimillion-dollar scheme. In many respects it was far more contemptible, and not only because each scholarship the twins received prevented a legitimate applicant from getting a shot. Grants and bursaries like those the Gills usurped are a small part of Canada’s continuous efforts to atone for its colonialism. What makes Manji, her daughters and pretendians like them so abhorrent is that they co-opt these very acts of atonement to victimize Indigenous communities all over again.