Officials at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., have accepted the return of an honorary degree awarded to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the former judge and law professor whose claims of Indigenous ancestry have been discredited.
A statement from SFU president Joy Johnson says Turpel-Lafond opted to return the 2016 award after the university told her it was under review.
Johnson says the school had received requests to review the degree in relation to “the importance of Indigenous identity and alleged false claims of Indigenous ancestry,” and its senate committee on university honours had decided to proceed.
She says the university gave Turpel-Lafond an opportunity to either relinquish the degree or “make representations on the issues at hand,” and she chose to return it.
A letter from the group Indigenous Women’s Collective signed by retired Cree Senator Lillian Dyck, among others, says the university’s decision allowed Turpel-Lafond to evade sanctions for what it describes as “falsely parading as an abused Indigenous woman who overcame enormous odds.”
Turpel-Lafond has already returned honorary degrees from Brock University and two Vancouver Island schools after they initiated reviews in response to concerns raised about her claims of Indigenous ancestry, while McGill University, Carleton University and the University of Regina have each rescinded awards granted to her.
The former B.C. representative for children and youth has said she is Cree on her father’s side, and told The Canadian Press earlier this month that she’s satisfied in her past work, identity and self-worth, and it’s “liberating” to be freed of honours because it permits her to “focus on what really matters” in her life.
The Indigenous Women’s Collective says Simon Fraser’s acceptance of the degree’s return without completing its review of Turpel-Lafond’s claims sends a message that there is no justice for Indigenous people when someone steals from them.
“Indigenous identity fraud is colonial violence against Indigenous people and a slap on the wrist will do little to stop it from continuing to happen,” the letter says.
Johnson’s statement released Thursday says Simon Fraser University acknowledges “the need to do more to better protect Indigenous students, staff and faculty … from the impacts of fraudulent claims to Indigenous identity.”
A process is “well underway” to develop a procedure to determine Indigenous identity and ensure any benefits intended for Indigenous community members go to Indigenous people, she says, with recommendations expected later this year.
Turpel-Lafond was also appointed to the Order of Canada in 2021.
She previously told the CBC that while she was growing up she didn’t question the biological parentage of her father, who she has said was Cree.