Indigenous concert in Vancouver cancelled over questions about performer’s identity claims

The Vancouver Park Board and Britannia Community Services Centre cancelled an event Sunday that had been advertised as part of an Indigenous concert series in Grandview Park.

The cancellation came after community members raised concerns over whether the person booked to headline the show is actually Indigenous.

In lieu of the concert, staff from Britannia led a discussion in the park with community members to explain the situation.

“The mistake that we made for an Indigenous Concert Series was that we hired a self-identified Indigenous person without acknowledging or checking with their family, their nation, or the Indigenous family of East Van to hold them up,” said Cynthia Low, executive director at Britannia.

Michelle Wright, who uses the stage name Michelle Heyoka, is the artist who was booked to headline the event.

In March of 2022 she was a featured performer at a First Nation’s night hosted by the Vancouver Canucks.

She also sang the national anthem at a Canucks Truth and Reconciliation night during an exhibition game in Abbotsford in October.

In a 2021 interview for a YouTube show called Music Talks with Miss Sapphire, the host asked Wright to discuss her heritage.

“I’m an Indigenous woman. My background is Mizo, which is a native and Chinese tribe located in India,” Wright answered.

The Indigenous events she has taken part in are meant to be celebrations of people Indigenous to Canada.

“They’re co-opting an identity that allows them to move into those spaces and start mining away at what benefits them from having that identity,” said Diane Hellson, an Indigenous musician who performs under the name Mama Rude Gyal.

A 2021 City of Reconciliation document from Vancouver city staff to council members lists Michelle Heyoka alongside a number of Indigenous artists who have received grants from the Vancouver Music Fund.

In a statement, the City of Vancouver told CTV News it is “aware of this evolving story and will consider next steps in due course.”

“The city understands the importance of ensuring that funding earmarked for Indigenous peoples is distributed appropriately,” the statement said.

Recently, many people have been accused of Indigenous identity fraud, including prominent lawyer Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and Carrie Bourassa, a university health professor.

In the wake of Bourassa’s dismissal from her position at the University of Saskatchewan after the allegations surfaced, Vancouver-based Indigenous rights lawyer Jean Teillet wrote a report on Indigenous identity fraud for the university.

“This is happening all over. We’re watching these exposés pop up and those exposés are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Teillet. “There are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people who are doing this.”

Late in the day Sunday, after Britannia Community Centre staff had left, Wright did give an impromptu performance in Grandview Park and shared videos of her singing on social media.

She declined to be interviewed by CTV News, but did provide a screenshot of what she says is a DNA test showing she is 49.7% “East Asian and Native American.”

The screenshot contained no information identifying the company that allegedly conducted the test and did not provide a detailed breakdown of Wright’s ethnicity.

She insists she is Indigenous to the Americas although she acknowledges that she has no ties to any Indigenous nations or communities in Canada.

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