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UBC professor’s departure raises more questions than answers

The curious case of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has left an institution and reconciliation in a most terrible spot. It is difficult to know where to start.

The curious case of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has left an institution and reconciliation in a most terrible spot. It is difficult to know where to start.

Last week we were first to report of her departure from the University of British Columbia (UBC) as a tenured professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law. Depending on who you cited, she either was (UBC said) “no longer working for” or (she said) “retired” from the role.

In case you don’t recognize her name, Turpel-Lafond is no garden-variety entity. She is a storied lawyer, jurist and advocate, associated over decades with the advancement of Indigenous rights, who has been stationed in multiple roles at the forefront of a struggle for reconciliation that has only now been gaining traction.

Problem is, she’s been branded a fraud.

A compelling yearlong CBC investigation into her claims of Indigenous heritage concluded last fall she is nothing of the sort. Today her Wikipedia entry is as much about who she might not be as who she claims she is.

The disputatious list is staggering. To quote: “In 2022, various biographical claims made by Turpel-Lafond came under media scrutiny, including her claimed place of birth on a First Nations reserve, her claimed Cree ancestry, her claim of receiving an LLM from the University of Cambridge, her claim of receiving a doctorate of law from Harvard University in 1990, her claim of being made Queen’s Counsel in Saskatchewan, her claim of being a member of the Law Society of Saskatchewan and the Law Society of Nova Scotia, her claim of having co-authored a book with UBC professor Grant Charles, and her claim of holding an honorary doctorate from First Nations University of Canada.”

But when allegations emerged that her ancestry claims were bogus, UBC promptly defended her, as did the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. She had been the inaugural director of the university’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre until her term ended last June, but had continued as a law professor – although she wasn’t teaching this last semester as the controversy unfurled.

The university chose a most peculiar path as it parted ways with her. It didn’t declare she was fired, or leaving, or had resigned. It didn’t declare anything. It simply signalled she was no longer working there. 

For her part, Turpel-Lafond didn’t declare she was fired, or was leaving for a new opportunity, or had resigned. She, too, declared nothing. But upon being asked, as we did, she said she had retired, presumably not from work entirely but from a tenured job for life that will still yield a pension from her four years in it.

If some see this as a graceful, painless partition, with neither side being wounded, I would argue it is anything but.

The university, iconic as a tier-one institute worldwide, has failed to bring definitive information to her parting. And she, iconic as a national figure on Indigenous matters, has failed to bring definitive information to her identity. The writing of a controversial chapter remains unfinished.

It is as if the lawyers agreed the best approach was to walk away in silence, sweep the mess under the carpet and hope everyone moves on. And that might well seem wise for the time being to buy temporary peace, because this is the lull before another storm – a civil claim is likely forthcoming from incensed university scholars, and the 11 institutes where Turpel-Lafond has been given honorary degrees are weighing whether to rescind them. The controversy is far from subsiding, and with the evidence we have now it is hard to see how her reputation recovers.

The irony in this is that Turpel-Lafond has been far from incompetent. She was well-liked at the UBC centre, well-respected as a thorn in the side of the province as the representative for children and youth, and well-regarded on the bench of the Saskatchewan provincial court.

The question no one has yet answered is whether her fundamental claim to Indigeneity is true. She hasn’t produced a status card that would solve the matter. If she is not what she claims to be, it is reasonable to assert her professed ancestry helped earn her roles over the last three decades that might have gone to Indigenous people.

With neither UBC nor Turpel-Lafond discussing any details, they are left with clouds over them.

There are some basic questions to start: Did the university investigate and interrogate her? Did she retire of her own agency or as an alternative to their firing her? Were there any other terms to her departure?

But then there some more significant questions: How important is it to national reconciliation that we have integrity of identity that roots out appropriation? What does it say about the commitment to reconciliation if institutions fail to be rigorous in their hirings when they seek Indigenous representation, and transparent when “pretendians” infiltrate?

For UBC, this is no small reputational matter. Its immediate defence of her when the investigation was published isn’t being walked back in the face of troubling publicity then and since. The public record, therefore, remains that UBC does not challenge her claim. What does that say about its own integrity? What does it tell us about its commitment to reconciliation if it is not prepared to confront and clarify the conflicting claims involving the most prominent professor in its employ who professed to be of Indigenous heritage? If this episode doesn’t justify the production of facts, what would?

For her, of course, this remains anything but a small matter, too. She has steadfastly, understandably, stood by her contention about her identity; anything less than that would denigrate the basis of her accomplishments, after all.

But neither she nor UBC are as important for all of us as is finding the truth of the matter. Given the chance, both parties with the opportunity to do so chose not to bring us any closer to it. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.