By Patrick Quinn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A CBC investigation disproving Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s claims of Indigenous descent is stirring controversy about the extent of Indigenous identity fraud in the highest levels of Canadian legal, political and academic institutions.
Until the revelations, the lawyer, former judge and legislative advocate of children’s rights had been celebrated as among Canada’s most accomplished scholars. Turpel-Lafond was believed to be the first treaty Indian to be appointed a judge in Saskatchewan in 1998 and was a 2021 recipient of the Order of Canada.
After serving many years as British Columbia’s first Representative for Children and Youth, in 2018 she became the inaugural director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.
While UBC first said Turpel-Lafond was not hired because of her Indigenous ancestry claims, a statement on January 17 clarified that “it would have also been understood that it was an implicit expectation.” According to the statement, UBC regretted their silence was interpreted as continued support, admitting engagement with their Indigenous community has been inadequate and promising to do better.
“To see UBC come out in quick defence, then bury its head in the sand is a real disappointment,” observed Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
“I grew up dreaming of going to UBC, nobody in my family had ever gone to university. When the facts were against them, they went into darkness.”
Blackstock, a UBC alumna and member of the Gitxsan First Nation, initially reserved judgment on the issue but was convinced when Turpel-Lafond’s father’s birth certificate was uncovered, showing he was the natural-born child of British parents and not an adopted boy from the Norway House Cree Nation of undetermined parentage as previously claimed.
“I think she owes an apology to Norway House in particular,”
Blackstock told the Nation. “Making claims to that community put community members in a very awkward space when that all came to light. When you’re defeating colonialism, you become really aware of the sacredness of a First Nations, Metis or Inuit identity.”
In CBC journalist Geoff Leo’s initial expose, evidence suggested Turpel-Lafond was likely born in Niagara Falls, where her parents were on voting lists, although her grandfather was a doctor at Norway House in the 1920s and 1930s. Her father’s appearance and behaviour led some of her cousins to suspect he was Indigenous through some family secret. In the late 1980s Turpel-Lafond told sisters that her research showed he was Cree.
Similarly murky claims to Indigenous ancestry, often relating to distant relations centuries ago or shifting between First Nations over the years, have resulted in controversies involving author Joseph Boyden, filmmaker Michelle Latimer and Canada’s former “leading Indigenous health scientist” Carrie Bourassa who had also received thousands of dollars in Métis scholarships that put her through her Masters and PhD .
Bourassa was suspended and eventually resigned from the University of Saskatchewan, which released an independent report last October authored by Metis lawyer Jean Teillet. She writes that well-intentioned initiatives to allocate spaces for Indigenous people have naively relied on self-identification, often as simple as ticking a box.
“The academy seriously underestimated the fact that so many individuals would seek to exploit that ignorance for their personal gain,” wrote Teillet in her 84-page report. “As a consequence, there were few checks and balances to detect or deter Indigenous identity fraud.”
Teillet recommended that employment or scholarships for Indigenous people require documented proof of ancestry or oral evidence. The 28-person Indigenous task force appointed by the University of Saskatchewan stated that federally issued Indian status cards are a simple method for verifying at least one parent is a treaty Indian.
Turpel-Lafond’s reputation as a tireless defender of Indigenous rights preceded her, a reputation linked to her narrative of Indigenous identity, marginalization and historic trauma. When assuming her role as BC’s representative for children and youth, she described her traumatic childhood on reserve surrounded by violence and alcoholism.
“Working with those in child welfare, she ought to have understood this type of behaviour makes their journey of reconnecting with their families more difficult,” suggested Blackstock. “It makes them feel maybe I’m not really a First Nations person and I’ll get rejected. That requires a minimum of taking accountability. Otherwise, she leaves the work on the backs of the victims.”
Because Blackstock works alongside many non-Indigenous people who do enormous work for Indigenous causes, she’s most troubled by Turpel-Lafond’s dishonesty. She believes those disconnected from their communities through colonizing factors should at least have valid reasons explaining their dislocation and journeys to finding their pathways back.
Turpel-Lafond’s misrepresentation extends to her academic and job credentials. In her 2018 UBC CV personally submitted as evidence to the MMIWG inquiry, she listed a Harvard doctorate in 1990 that was in fact awarded in 1997 and a master’s degree from Cambridge that was a substantially different diploma.
Blackstock believes these inconsistencies combined with a non-existent book and honorary doctorate justify reviewing Turpel-Lafond’s work in critical areas impacting Indigenous peoples, such as Bill C-92 regarding Indigenous child welfare.
“She clearly took up space where others could have had an opportunity,” said Blackstock. “This is a contemporary form of colonialism. Instead of taking up land, it is taking up resources and opportunity based on false credentials. Where opportunities were gained and financial revenue received, I’d like there be some kind of criminal penalty for this fraud.”
After a group called the Indigenous Women’s Collective (IWC) called on universities to rescind Turpel-Lafond’s 10 honorary degrees, several Indigenous women said if that they don’t, they’ll return theirs. On December 13, Senator Mary Jane McCallum denounced so-called “pretendians” in Parliament, arguing the issue particularly harms Indigenous women by stealing “our voice, our power and our hard-earned places in society.”
On January 17, Vancouver Island University accepted Turpel-Lafond’s offer to return her honour after she was informed an investigation was underway. But the IWC noted that Turpel-Lafond has yet to apologize or stand accountable for her wrongdoing.
“The accountability we require must be specific and proportionate to the harm caused to Indigenous people,” stated the IWC.
Patrick Quinn is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE NATION. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.