Two B.C. universities with former ties to a scholar whose claims of Cree heritage have been brought into question say they’re reviewing if self-identification is still the best way to determine if new hires are actually Indigenous.
The University of British Columbia and Vancouver Island University both released statements Tuesday (Jan. 17), about four months after a CBC News investigation dug into Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s ancestry. Turpel-Lafond’s claim to Cree heritage has characterized her career as an accomplished scholar and former judge.
It’s what made her eligible for the director role at UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.
When the investigation first came out, UBC said it couldn’t comment on personal information about its employees, but that it relies on self-identification by candidates when hiring for Indigenous scholarship or leadership roles.
Turpel-Lafond was also a tenured professor with the UBC’s law school up until mid-December. UBC has refused to say what ended her employment, citing privacy issues, but Turpel-Lafond described the move as a retirement.
UBC has since faced criticism for its lack of initial action and later transparency, including from some of its own professors and well-known Canadian Indigenous voices such as Cindy Blackstock.
On Tuesday, interim president Deborah Buszard and provost Gage Averill expressed regret over this.
“Let us state clearly that we recognize our engagement with the Indigenous community has not been adequate or sufficient to date, and we will strive hard to improve. We believe that we should have met more promptly with the UBC Indigenous community.”
The two said they are committed to figuring out whether UBC needs a different approach to determining identity during its hiring process.
VIU was more direct in its own statement, saying it is working on creating a specific Indigenous Identity Policy.
“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,” President and Vice-chancellor Deborah Saucier said.
The university also noted that Turpel-Lafond voluntarily returned an Honorary Doctorate of Laws VIU gave her in 2013, after it told her it would be reviewing it. VIU said it initiated this process following calls from their community and the Indigenous Women’s Collective.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with information from the Vancouver Island University.