Mi'kmaw lawyer, academic calls on MUN to investigate president over statements on Indigenous heritage

Pam Palmater is an Mi'kmaw lawyer, author and academic, and a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick.  (Submitted by Pam Palmater - image credit)
Pam Palmater is an Mi'kmaw lawyer, author and academic, and a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. (Submitted by Pam Palmater - image credit)

An Indigenous lawyer, author and academic is calling for Memorial University of Newfoundland to investigate its president following a CBC News investigation of Vianne Timmons's statements on Indigenous heritage and past membership in an unrecognized First Nation group.

Pam Palmater said the university ought to investigate the matter and suspend Timmons during the investigation process before making a decision about whether she keeps her position.

"I think they need to hold themselves to account," said Palmater, who is a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick.

Timmons, who has been president and vice-chancellor since 2020, says she does not, nor has she ever claimed Mi'kmaw identity. However, for years her publicly available resumé listed her as a member of an unrecognized band in Nova Scotia. Between 2011 and 2018, multiple professional biographies noted her membership in Bras d'Or Mi'kmaq First Nation, including one used for the prime minister's independent advisory board for senate appointments.

In a statement released Wednesday, the university's Office of Indigenous Affairs asked that the university community give them space to gather and discuss.

"Indigenous identity and Indigenous ancestry are issues that can be complex and nuanced," said the statement. "The conversations around these issues are ones that must be led by Indigenous people.

Memorial University's board of regents — the university's governing body — issued a statement Thursday afternoon repeating that sentiment, saying the issues are complex and that conversation must be guided by Indigenous people.

"This is a significant and sensitive topic that requires due consideration," said board chair Glenn Barnes. "Those conversations have already started and will continue at the board's regularly scheduled March meeting today."

Memorial University
Memorial University

Timmons maintains there is a difference between claiming Indigenous identity and Indigenous heritage, and has spoken of her lineage before, in interviews and question-and-answer sessions.

"I'm of Mi'kmaw ancestry; that was hidden and something to be ashamed of. I want to make sure that people today don't feel that shame that my father felt," Timmons told MUN newspaper the Muse in 2021.

"It's like trying to find your story that somebody hid from you, not just hid from you, but changed for you. We're so proud of our heritage — Italian Canadian, French Canadians — but when it comes to my father, being Indigenous was not something to be proud of, it was something to be ashamed of. That is heartbreaking."

She said she was told by her father when she was in her 30s that she had a Mi'kmaw great-great-great-grandmother but her father was ashamed of it. Timmons said she honoured her father's wishes by acknowledging her Mi'kmaw heritage.

However, CBC News could not find any Mi'kmaw relative closer than 10 generations removed. A genealogist and Stephen White, whom the American-French Genealogical Society considers the foremost expert in Acadian genealogy, reviewed the CBC's work.

Timmons said she has a census document to prove her family's story. CBC News has asked for the document for a month, and Timmons said it is likely in her mother's home in Nova Scotia.

However, Palmater said the degree to which Timmons may have Indigenous ancestry is moot.

"Even if she did have some distant ancestor from hundreds of years ago, that in and of itself no more makes her Mi'kmaw than if she had a distant ancestor from hundreds of years ago from Germany, for example," she said.

Palmater doesn't believe her efforts to distinguish heritage and identity have been "very honest or accountable."

"What would be the reason why people would be calling her Mi'kmaw if she herself wasn't portraying herself to be Mi'kmaw, holding herself out to be Mi'kmaw, putting in her CV that she was Mi'kmaw, or somehow making references to that?" said Palmater.

"No one would just randomly ask that."

The past online citation of Bras d'Or Mi'kmaq First Nation membership in her biographies and CV is the "nail in the coffin," said Palmater.

Timmons acknowledged in an interview with CBC News last Tuesday that she was a member of Bras d'Or Mi'kmaq First Nation, which is unrecognized by the Union of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq and the federal government, for a short period of time around 2009.

Timmons said she quickly backed away from her membership because she did not identify as Mi'kmaw and the band was unrecognized.

"I wasn't asked very often, but a couple of times people said, 'You know, you're part of the Bras d'Or band,' and I would say, 'It's a non-recognized band. And no, I'm not. I was not raised in the culture and it was part of my own learning and understanding and my journey.' So I have said that," Timmons said.

Relying on "a fake group to assert an identity and now claim that she never asserted that identity" is also wrong, said Palmater.

"It was on her CV that she was part of this fake First Nation with no clarifications to anyone in writing or otherwise."

Palmater said Timmons's claims are harmful to staff and students, and are embarrassing to the university.

'She's playing semantics'

Timmons released a statement to MUN's Gazette following her interview with CBC News.

"Falsely claiming Indigenous identity is categorically wrong and harms Indigenous people. That is why I make the distinction I do about my heritage. I felt I was always very clear,' wrote Timmons on Tuesday.

"I recognize the changing context of the world we live in, and will be more cognizant in the future of when and how I share information about my heritage and strive to make the distinction even clearer."


Palmater said Timmons has failed to take accountability.

"How many people are introduced in media or events as having, Mi'kmaw heritage, Cree heritage or ancestry? The public tends to associate that with an identity. She would know that she works in Indigenization, right?" said Palmater.

"She claims to know what's been happening with all of these other cases. So she should know that's the same thing. She's playing semantics."

Timmons accepted a 2019 Indspire Award, a recognition of her work to help save funding for First Nations University. She told CBC News in her interview she initially rejected it. She said she consulted with an elder who she says encouraged her to accept it. "I was acknowledging the work that was done, but also acknowledging my ancestors," she said.

Palmater believes Timmons should return her Indspire award and issue a public apology acknowledging that she identified as Mi'kmaw.

"And if she doesn't, Indspire should take it back."

Indspire, registered charitable organization, has not responded to repeated requests from CBC News.

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