Two Vancouver Island universities that issued honorary degrees to former youth representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond say they are consulting Indigenous partners and colleagues about how to proceed after a First Nations group asked that the degrees be rescinded.
Turpel-Lafond served for a decade as B.C.’s representative for children and youth, and two years ago, was tasked with preparing a report on Indigenous-specific racism in B.C.’s health-care system.
But after a CBC News investigation raised questions about the validity of her claims that she is a treaty Indian of Cree ancestry, the Indigenous Women’s Collective, a Saskatchewan group, asked any university that had issued Turpel-Lafond an honorary degree to rescind the distinction.
Vancouver Island University bestowed an honorary doctor of laws degree on Turpel-Lafond in 2013, saying it was in recognition of her “extraordinary humanitarian and public contributions to fostering awareness and understanding of the challenges and needs affecting vulnerable children in Canada.”
In a statement, the university said it “respectfully acknowledges” the concerns raised by the Indigenous Women’s Collective.
It said issues of Indigenous identity are complex and “must be considered within the context of hundreds of years of colonialization.” “As an institution committed to evidence-based practice, we will be taking the necessary time to follow proper governance, consult with Indigenous partners, and carefully evaluate all the ethical considerations pertaining to this matter.”
Royal Roads University, which gave Turpel-Lafond an honorary degree in 2016, said in a statement that it will review the concerns raised “with appropriate care and attention,” adding: “Consistent with our commitment to truth and reconciliation, this will include consultation with Indigenous colleagues and other members of our community.”
Lillian Dyck, a member of the Indigenous Women’s Collective, acknowledged Friday from Saskatchewan that universities don’t move rapidly, although she said: “They are obligated to take swift actions as soon as possible.”
Turpel-Lafond also received honorary degrees from Simon Fraser University in 2016, Thompson Rivers University in 2009, York University in 2013 and McGill University in 2014.
She could not be reached immediately for comment. The Times Colonist sent an email to her University of B.C. address in the Peter A. Allard School of Law and also left a telephone message and sent an email to the Mack Law Corp. in Saanichton, where a CBC News story said Turpel-Lafond appears to be a staff lawyer. She is not listed as a member of the team on the West Saanich Road firm’s website.
In an Oct. 14 statement on her Twitter account, Turpel wrote: “I am of Cree, Scottish and English heritage and & hold the name aki-kwe & am an active member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.
“My credentials have been vetted at the highest levels of our country.”
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