Memorial University president removed after scrutiny of Indigenous claims

Memorial University president Vianne Timmons is seen at the university in St. John's, Friday, July 9, 2021. Timmons has been removed from her role as president after questions arose about her claims of Indigenous heritage.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sarah Smellie. GAC

The president of Memorial University was removed from her role Thursday after she faced weeks of scrutiny about her claims of Indigenous heritage.

The Newfoundland and Labrador university’s board of regents said in a public statement that Vianne Timmons’s contract “is being ended on a without cause basis.”

“We extend our best wishes in all her future endeavors,” the statement said, after thanking Timmons for her work.

A CBC News report last month raised questions about Timmons’s claims that her father’s great-great-grandmother was Mi’kmaq. Timmons issued an apology shortly after, saying she regretted “any hurt or confusion sharing (her) story may have caused.”

She announced on March 13 that she would be taking a six-week paid leave while the board of regents considered its next steps. The board said Thursday that it has appointed an interim president and will launch a search for a new president “in due course.”

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Timmons is among several high-profile Canadian academics whose claims of Indigeneity have recently been challenged.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association revoked an award last month from former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, saying it believed she “falsified her claims to Cree ancestry.”

Earlier this year, McGill University, Carleton University and the University of Regina each rescinded honorary degrees awarded to Turpel-Lafond. She has also returned honorary degrees from Simon Fraser University and Brock University. Last July, Carrie Bourassa resigned from her position as a health professor at the University of Saskatchewan after a CBC report raised doubts about her claims of being Metis.

Timmons has said her father told her when she was in her 30s that their ancestors were Mi’kmaq, and that he had been raised to be ashamed of that history.

In a public statement on March 7, the day before CBC News published its story, she said she never claimed to be Indigenous, just to have Indigenous heritage. “It is a distinction I have been careful to make, because it is an important distinction,” she wrote.

However, for years Timmons listed membership with the unrecognized Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia in her professional credentials. The membership is included in a December 2018 announcement from the federal government that Timmons would sit on an independent advisory board for Senate appointments. The group is not recognized as a First Nation by the federal or Nova Scotia governments.

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In 2019, Timmons accepted an award from Indspire, a national Indigenous-led charity celebrating Indigenous education and achievement. The Indspire website says she is Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia.

The Innu Nation in Labrador said Memorial University must still address larger issues of Indigenous participation and funding at the school.

“This includes the need for a process to address the growing problem of people and groups who wrongly claim to be Indigenous,” the First Nation said in a news release Thursday. “It is clear that MUN can no longer sit on the sidelines on this issue and must, like other academic institutions in Canada, take proactive steps to address this problem.”

Timmons took office at Memorial in April 2020 with a five-year contract and an annual base salary of $450,000. If the contract is terminated without cause, she is entitled to a severance payment of 18 months’ salary _ $675,000 _ as well as a payment for administrative leave worth at least $270,000.

The university’s faculty association called on the board of regents to conduct an independent investigation into Timmons’s claims.

“Dr. Timmons’s tenure has not been a success in general, but the scandal regarding her claims to indigeneity has harmed many people _ we feel deeply sorry to Indigenous members of the community that the university has caused these harms,” the union said in a release Thursday.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2023.

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