A DNA laboratory that claims to test for Indigenous ancestry has been accused of potentially scamming consumers by producing dubious results, and contributing to a suspected tax scam involving claims of Indigenous status.
A CBC News report Monday revealed the Toronto-based company, Viaguard Accu-Metrics, produced bizarre ancestry results for at least a handful of customers—some of whom weren’t even human. Saliva from pet dogs and non-Indigenous people returned impossible percentages of First Nations DNA, raising questions about a possible scam.
According to the CBC, customers are using Viaguard Accu-Metrics’ results to obtain cards that resemble official Certificates of Indian Status—but are not actually recognized by the government—from a third-party organization. Reportedly, some customers are using these cards to obtain retail tax exemptions designed for Indigenous Peoples that they are not entitled to under the law.
Louis Côté, a resident of Quebec, submitted three oral swabs to Viaguard: Two from himself (under different names), and one from Snoopy, his chihuahua (using his adopted son’s name). The tests returned identical results.
Both Côté and Snoopy, according to “unique genetic markers,” were each 12 percent Abenaki and eight percent Mohawk. “I heard some things that were not straight with these tests,” Côté told CBC News. Another Quebec resident, Daniel Brabant, sent DNA samples of his pet dog Mollie to Viagard for testing and was told that his pooch had five percent Indigenous genetic heritage.
Viaguard’s website used to have a page that detailed its “variety of DNA tests for First Nation, Métis and Native Americans […] based on a sample comparison to a proven member of the group, which identifies specific tribal linkage.” It’s unclear when the page was removed, but it was online as of November last year.
Viaguard is reportedly connected to the Confederation of Aboriginal People of Canada (CAPC), a group that claims to represent “off-reserve Indigenous people,” but isn’t recognized by the Assembly of First Nations or Canada’s government. For a $250 fee, CAPC collects DNA from people and delivers the swabs to Viaguard to be tested. If First Nations ancestry is “detected,” CAPC offers members a card that resembles an official Certificate of Indian Status, but does not confer any status under the law, for an additional $80.
Côté says he learned about the laboratory while working with CAPC. According to CBC News, a number of CAPC's members aren't part of any First Nations community and don't have Canadian government-issued Indian status. CAPC members rely on the results of DNA testing for proof of their Indigenous ancestry.
CBC News also tested the DNA of three employees who were not aware of any genetic connection to Indigenous Peoples in North America. Each of them, according to Viaguard, possessed 20 percent First Nations DNA (containing the same admixture as Côté’s results). Meanwhile, swabs sent to 23andMe, a popular genetic ancestry service, produced zero Indigenous DNA.
Scholars consulted by CBC News were skeptical of Viaguard’s services. Indeed, many genetic experts agree that consumer DNA tests can’t reliably say that someone belongs to one Indigenous group or another. As University of Alberta professor Kim Tallbear has previously pointed out, Indigenous identity is more complex than a number.
“Being a Native American isn’t just about having an ancestor among those founding populations,” Tallbear said in a 2016 interview with PRI.
“It’s not just a matter of what you claim, but it's a matter of who claims you,” Tallbear added. “And if no indigenous community claims you, it’s a little bit presumptuous to be running around saying 'I am, therefore, Native American.'”
In Montreal, Mohawk police—called the Kahnawake Mohawk Peacekeepers—are now seizing CAPC cards from people using them to claim tax exemptions, according to CBC News. The Canadian government doesn’t consider DNA results proof of Indian status. Instead, a person must show that an immediate ancestor was recognized as Indigenous in historical government or band records.
When questioned by CBC News, Viaguard blamed the dubious results on sample contamination.
“Samples submitted in this matter may be useful from an informational perspective but do not meet standards of forensic scientific validity required for a legal test nor are they intended to unless collected appropriately,” the spokesperson added.
Viaguard did not respond to Motherboard’s question about claims that it falsified results.