Memorial University president apologizes, steps back amid Indigenous claims scrutiny

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Amid scrutiny about her claims to Indigenous ancestry, the president of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador apologized Monday for hurt she may have caused by invoking Mi’kmaq heritage.

Vianne Timmons said she will take temporary leave as the school's board of regents considers its next steps through an Indigenous-led roundtable.

"While I have shared that I am not Mi’kmaq and I do not claim an Indigenous identity, questions about my intentions in identifying my Indigenous ancestry and whether I have benefited from sharing my understanding of my family’s history have sparked important conversations on and beyond our campus," Timmons said in a written statement.

The scrutiny arose after an investigation published last week by CBC News raised questions about Timmons’ claims that her father’s great-great-grandmother was Mi’kmaq. A day before the story's publication, Timmons released a statement under the title, "‘Indigenous identity is complex."

"I am not Mi’kmaq. I am not Indigenous. I did not grow up in an Indigenous community," she wrote. "My family, through my father, is of Mi’kmaw ancestry and heritage. It is a distinction I have been careful to make because it is an important distinction."

However, Timmons listed membership with the unrecognized Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia in her professional credentials for years. The membership is included in a December 2018 announcement from Ottawa that Timmons would sit on an independent advisory board for Senate appointments.

In 2019, Timmons accepted an award from Indspire, a national Indigenous-led charity celebrating Indigenous education and achievement. The Indspire website says she fought to Indigenize the University of Regina, where she was president and vice-chancellor before her appointment with Memorial University began in April 2020. It also says she played a key role in the recovery of First Nations University in Regina after a financial crisis befell the school in 2010.

Memorial University published a copy of her curriculum vitae hours after the CBC News investigation was published. It did not list membership with the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation group.

Timmons has said that her father was ashamed of his Indigenous history and that it was "hidden." In her statement Monday, she said she shared her story "in a spirit of reconciliation, curiosity and continued learning and respect for Indigenous Peoples."

The university says Timmons is on a six-week voluntary paid leave of absence.

Memorial's board of regents said Monday it is forming a roundtable of Indigenous leaders to consider Timmons' claims of Mi’kmaq heritage and provide advice to the board.

"While our initial understanding was that president Timmons did not claim Indigenous identity, we have received a lot of feedback from the community," the board said. "We have received important questions about the president’s actions, and we believe we have a responsibility to Indigenous Peoples and a fiduciary duty as a board to explore these questions further."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2023.

The Canadian Press