Vancouver Island University (VIU) says it has accepted Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's offer to return the honorary doctorate the university granted her in 2013, according to a VIU news release.
"Turpel-Lafond informed VIU of her decision to voluntarily return the honour after receiving correspondence from the university that it would be moving forward with a process regarding her honorary doctorate," the Tuesday afternoon statement said.
VIU is one of 11 Canadian universities that have granted honorary doctorates to Turpel-Lafond.
Last year, all of them announced they were reviewing the honours after a CBC investigation raised doubts about Turpel-Lafond's claims to Indigenous ancestry. For decades she had said she was a treaty Indian of Cree ancestry, but documents uncovered by CBC indicate she is of entirely European descent.
CBC also discovered several inaccuracies on Turpel-Lafond's CV.
After the story was published, a group called the Indigenous Women's Collective (IWC) called on the 11 universities to revoke the honorary doctorates and they all indicated they would consider the request.
VIU is the first institution to accept the return of an honorary degree. It said that given Turpel-Lafond voluntarily returned it, the review is concluded and the university will have no further comment about her.
"More broadly, VIU condemns Indigenous identity fraud and will continue the consultation process that is currently underway to develop and implement an Indigenous Identity Policy," the statement says. "VIU will also be reviewing its policy and procedure for nominating, awarding and rescinding honorary doctorates."
The statement quotes VIU president Deborah Saucier as saying, "false claims of Indigenous ancestry cause harm to Indigenous peoples."
"This is why VIU's future policy on Indigenous identity will honour the contributions of Indigenous students, faculty, staff and community leaders and will include safeguards to confirm Indigenous identity going forward," she said.
Indigenous Women's group calls for accountability
In a news release, the IWC praised VIU for speaking clearly and publicly about this issue.
"By doing so, they opened the door for real change and reparations in the form of true accountability," the organization said.
But the group said that while Turpel-Lafond has returned her degree, she has not addressed her conduct and its harms.
"Rather than be accountable and apologize for her wrongdoing, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond seems to be signalling to Indigenous people, universities and the public at large that she is above reproach and reprimand, and she will continue striving to control the narrative," the group said.
IWC urged the other 10 universities still reviewing this matter to refuse to accept a returned degree until their investigations are concluded.
"We are asking universities that have granted her honorary doctorates to not allow her to simply return them, but stand tall and follow through on the investigative process to defend academic honesty and honourable conduct,"said the IWC. "The accountability we require must be specific and proportionate to the harm caused to Indigenous people."