Six out of 10 universities confirm they’re reviewing honorary degrees given to retired judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, after being asked by a group of Indigenous women to revoke them following a CBC investigation into her claims of Indigenous heritage.
The honours should be withdrawn because the former B.C. representative for children and youth “stole” the identity and lived experiences of Indigenous women, said a statement from the Indigenous Women’s Collective.
The University of Regina along with McGill, Brock, Royal Roads, St. Thomas and Mount Saint Vincent universities, all say they’ve been looking into the situation.
Their statements Wednesday came the day after Vancouver Island University announced Turpel-Lafond had returned her 2013 honorary degree. The school had told her it was under review due to requests from the collective and members of the university community.
Carleton, Simon Fraser, Thompson Rivers and York universities did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Retired senator Lillian Dyck is among the signatories to the collective’s statement saying Turpel-Lafond claimed opportunities, recognition and influence that weren’t rightfully hers.
The University of British Columbia, where Turpel-Lafond had been a tenured law professor, announced she no longer works there, as of Dec. 16.
Reached by phone, Turpel-Lafond declined to comment on the calls for her honorary degrees to be revoked or the universities’ review processes.
She previously told the CBC she didn’t question the biological parentage of her father, who she has said was Cree, when she was growing up.
She introduced herself at a 2019 Senate standing committee meeting on Aboriginal Peoples by saying: “I am a Cree person originally from the Prairies.”
Until last year, Turpel-Lafond had been the academic director of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. She is a longtime advocate for Indigenous issues.
The statement from the women’s collective said so-called “pretendianism” is an act of colonial violence with severe consequences for Indigenous people.
“We need to ensure that our children’s and grandchildren’s indigeneity will be respected and protected,” it said, adding any organization or leader claiming to uphold truth and reconciliation must denounce any “infringements.”
Meanwhile, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said Wednesday the CBC investigation that questioned Turpel-Lafond’s heritage was a “witch-hunt.”
The union had responded to the investigation last October with a statement saying Turpel-Lafond was a fierce and ethical advocate for Indigenous Peoples.
Questions of Indigenous identity were for Indigenous Peoples, families and governments to sort through based on their own laws and customs, it said.
“It is not the role of the media, the crown, or anyone else to tell us who we are.”
Phillip declined to comment further when reached by phone.
The University of B.C. issued a statement Tuesday saying it deeply regrets how it handled the situation after CBC’s investigation was published.
The school’s initial response last year said Indigenous identity was not an explicit requirement for Turpel-Lafond’s position at the residential school dialogue centre.
But the latest statement, signed by interim president and vice-chancellor Deborah Buszard and academic vice-president Gage Averill, said the original comment and UBC’s silence about its interpretation were seen as constituting support for her.
They expressed concern that this has harmed the Indigenous community at UBC and beyond.
“We deeply regret the impact of this and promise to do more now, and in the future.”
The university is reviewing its approaches to the role of Indigenous status and “truthfulness” in hiring, the statement said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2023.