Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond speaks out after award revoked over heritage claims
VANCOUVER — Former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says she's satisfied in her "past work, identity and self-worth," after the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association revoked an award because its board members believed she falsified her claims of Indigenous identity.
In her most expansive recent remarks since a CBC investigation last fall raised questions about her claim of Cree heritage, Turpel-Lafond said it's "liberating" to be freed of honours because it permits her to "focus on what really matters" in her life.
She has "no emotional attachment to titles, honours or accolades," she said Thursday by email in response to a request for comment by The Canadian Press.
But Turpel-Lafond said she was surprised the association rescinded the 2020 Reg Robson Award without "basic fairness," such as allowing her an opportunity to be heard.
"Trial by media is rampant, can be unbalanced and cause harm," said the former law professor and B.C. representative for children and youth.
"This is precisely how wrongful convictions and injustice happens — take a position based on what someone else suggests while never delving deeper into matters to determine the truth."
She used an Indigenous name, aki-kwe, in her email signature, as well as her English name.
The civil liberties association issued a statement Thursday saying its board had believed Turpel-Lafond's representations about her heritage when granting the award.
Indeed, they believed her ancestry "played an essential role in informing her professional roles, her position in the community, and her work to advance human rights on behalf of Indigenous Peoples and advocacy organizations," it said.
But information had come to light demonstrating that, in its board's view, Turpel-Lafond had falsified her claim of Cree heritage, while certain professional and academic accomplishments had also been disproven or called into question.
Her professional integrity has been eroded, it said, adding Turpel-Lafond had yet to publicly account for the allegations about her heritage and other claims, including that she was recognized with a Queen's counsel designation in Saskatchewan.
Her actions have taken opportunities and recognition away from Indigenous women and played a part in "gravely undermining" public confidence in the legal profession, it said.
The association must follow the lead of Indigenous scholars, leaders and organizations, including the Indigenous Women's Collective, which is demanding that all honorary degrees and awards conferred on her be revoked, it said.
McGill University, Carleton University and the University of Regina each rescinded honorary degrees awarded to Turpel-Lafond last month, and she has returned degrees conferred by Brock University and two B.C. post-secondary institutions after they initiated reviews in response to questions and concerns about her claims.
Others have confirmed they are looking into honorary degrees awarded to her, including Mount Saint Vincent and St. Thomas universities.
In conferring its own award, the civil liberties association recognizes it "contributed to amplifying … Turpel-Lafond's claims and position of influence," it said.
Her actions added to a "widespread pattern of Indigenous identity fraud, and the severe harms" it causes, the statement said.
"Indigenous identity fraud perpetuates colonial violence and assimilation practices, allowing settlers to shape the future for Indigenous communities while marginalizing Indigenous voices and weakening self-determination," it said.
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.
"He was Cree, spoke Cree and lived the values of a Cree person," she said in a statement posted to her Twitter account last October. Her father's non-Indigenous parents had adopted her father, "who they knew to be a Cree child," she said.
Turpel-Lafond served as British Columbia's representative for children and youth and, until last December, she was a tenured law professor at the University of B.C.
Until last year, she also served as the academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the university.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2023.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated Brock University was among the schools looking into honorary degrees awarded to Turpel-Lafond. In fact, Brock announced on March 8 that she had voluntarily returned its award granted in 2010.