By Peter Jackson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Memorial University president Vianne Timmons is on six weeks of paid leave as the university’s board of regents decides how to deal with the controversy regarding her claims of Indigenous heritage.
Doubts about her claims to Mi’kmaw ancestry were raised in a lengthy CBC feature last week.
In a statement Monday, March 13, board chairman Glenn Barnes said the university plans to convene a roundtable of Indigenous leaders to provide guidance on MUN’s next course of action.
Dr. Neil Bose, interim provost and vice-president (academic), has been appointed to take on Timmons’ duties in her absence.
“Our vision is, and remains, to create a Memorial University where every aspect of the academy is integrated with Indigenous ways of doing, being and knowing,” Barnes said. “Our strategic framework for Indigenization is a key tool in this journey, which we recognize requires cultural humility alongside structural and systemic changes. We want to be clear that all of this work has been led by Indigenous members of our community and that the board will continue to seek their guidance to inform any of its actions, perspectives or decisions.”
While she grew up in Labrador, Timmons has frequently claimed to have ties to a band in Cape Breton called Bras d’Ors First Nation.
She says her father was told as a child not to talk about his native roots, but that he and his family spent time investigating them in later years.
Timmons declined an interview request, but did provide The Telegram with documentation that includes census data and correspondences she and her brother have accumulated.
Much of it appears to be the same information provided to CBC for its investigation.
In that piece, Timmons admitted she once held an identity card as a member of the band, even though it has no official status and is not recognized by the broader Mi’kmaw leadership.
“But then I looked into it on my own and I didn’t feel comfortable identifying as a member of a band that wasn’t official or as a member of a band anyway because I was not raised Mi’kmaw and so I removed it and never referred to it again,” Timmons told the authors.
Most of Timmons’ documents refer to a 17th-century couple named Martin Benoit and Marie Chaussegros, but they appear to have come to Cape Breton from France. As is typical of the time, there also appear to be variations on their names.
One archival reference consists of a petition for land in Bras d`Ors by one “Benwa the Indian,” but that’s from 1810.
Timmons issued a statement Monday, the second since the CBC story surfaced, in which she said she regretted any confusion or offence caused by her claims.
“I have been reflecting on this feedback from the Indigenous community, and I sincerely regret any hurt or confusion sharing my story may have caused,” she said. “That was never my intention and I deeply apologize to those I have impacted.”
She said her intent was driven by a spirit of reconciliation, curiosity and continued learning and respect for Indigenous people.
“While this personal process started many years ago, I recognize these actions may be hurtful or cause harm.”
One of the harshest criticisms has come from Pam Palmater, an outspoken Mi’kmaw professor from New Brunswick who spoke to media last week.
“People have been complaining about her for a long time,”
Palmater, a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation and chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University), told The Telegram.
She said the problem with “pretendians” in academia is nothing new.
“There are pretendians at my university. There’s pretendians everywhere that we’ve been trying to get people to deal with, and they won’t deal with it because it’s not in their best interest.”
Palmater says the Timmons narrative is similar to that of other high-profile Canadians such as former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and author Joseph Boyden.
At least two universities rescinded honorary degrees awarded to Turpel-Lafond after questions arose over her claims of Cree heritage.
Boyden faced widespread criticism in a similar dispute.
“It amazes me how many pretendians will cite that they’re Indigenous, they open up all their speeches that they’re Indigenous, they apply for Indigenous awards, they apply for Indigenous positions, and then when they get caught, they say, `Oh, no, no, I’m mixed race. I’m exploring my heritage. That’s what my parents told me.’ They always backtrack to try to make a technical argument,” Palmater said.
Timmons received an Indspire award for education in 2019, an honour that’s meant to be bestowed on Indigenous people by their peers. However, she insists the organization was fully aware of her story.
Indspire did not reply to a request for comment.
Even if benefits are intangible and intentions honest, the confusion taints any good work that person may have done, Palmater says.
“It causes more harm than good,” she said.
The controversy comes at a time when DNA testing has become a popular means for tracing ethnic and geographical roots.
In recent years, researchers have discovered genetic traces of the lost Beothuk tribe in living subjects, which has led some to identify as such.
Palmater says the motives of people who pay for DNA tests to find Indigenous bloodlines are not necessarily opportunistic.
But they can be misguided.
Kim Tallbear, a professor of native studies at the University of Alberta, has written extensively about the conflict that arises when bloodline is treated as a reason for adopting Indigenous identity.
“I think what people are scrambling for is this ancient noble savage or noble Indian in their bloodline. They’re not very interested in contemporary Indigenous people who are alive, who are living in a still very colonial society at a severe income and class disadvantage, people living with multiple generations of trauma from residential schools, from other forms of discrimination and systematic exclusion,” Tallbear, who was raised on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, told The Telegram last year.
“That’s not what people want. They want that ancient noble savage that they see in paintings.”
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE TELEGRAM. The LJI program is federally funded.