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Turpel-Lafond case prompts renewed calls to address 'pretendianism' at Canada's universities

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Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who was the province's first children's watchdog, is no longer a professor at the University of British Columbia, months after a CBC report raised questions about her claimed Indigenous background.

Turpel-Lafond served as the Representative for Children and Youth from 2007 to 2016. In that time she made headlines for criticizing government policies that failed kids in care, particularly Indigenous kids. She spent 20 years as a provincial court judge in Saskatchewan and had two roles at UBC, as a professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law and as the director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

A CBC report entitled "Disputed History," published in October of 2022, scrutinized Turpel-Lafond's claim of Indigeneity and some of her academic achievements.

CTV News reached out to Turpel-Lafond but has not received a response.

In response, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs came out in support of the former judge, saying her integrity was "beyond reproach." A statement went on to say, in part, "Issues of First Nations identity and community membership are for Indigenous peoples, families, and governments to sort through based on their own laws, customs, and traditions."

Also in response, the Chief of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation confirmed she is a member of that nation based on her kinship. The statement didn't specifically support a claim that she was born on a reserve or to an Indigenous father.

Others were critical of Turpel-Lafond and demanded action and accountability.

Tracey Robinson, a member of the Indigenous Women's Collective, said she had suspicions for years about Turpel-Lafond's background, and after the story broke, other women reached out to the organization to say they did too.

The collective called on all post-secondary institutions that bestowed an honorary degree on Turpel-Lafond to rescind the honour.

In an interview with CTV News, Robinson she said she was pleasantly surprised at the number of universities that said they would look into the issue.

On Tuesday, UBC confirmed that as of Dec. 16, 2022 Turpel-Lafond was no longer working at the school. A spokesperson declined to provide further information, citing privacy laws. No press release or public statement was issued.

Robinson wasn't happy with this response. While she knows there are human resource and privacy laws that forbid employers from sharing personal information, she believes a generic statement could've been issued that addressed the issue of "pretendianism," a term describing someone who claims Indigenous ancestry that they do not have.

"They have enough people in positions of leadership that have the intelligence where they can develop an approach that addresses the issue without infringing upon her rights," added Robinson.

The issue of who is considered Indigenous is complicated, with some arguing people should self-identify and others saying that opens the door to imposters. UBC says that's why it's having important discussions on the matter.

A statement issued by Provost Gage Averill Wednesday says UBC's leadership is meeting with Indigenous leaders and scholars, and will engage students and staff on the issue in the coming weeks.

"On Dec. 12, the Provost and President met with the President’s Advisory Committee on Indigenous Affairs for an initial conversation. The committee looks forward to deeper conversations in the future on this topic," the statement said.

Robinson said while many feel the need to look at solutions, she thinks it's also important to look at the harm done.

"Pretendianism is an act of colonial violence," insists Robinson.

She added those engaging in this take advantage of centuries of rules and bureaucracy created by colonization in determining who is, and who isn't considered Indigenous.

"We haven't even had a chance to unpack the harm," Robinson added.

She believes that needs to be done, before any path forward for institutions can be effectively charted.

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