-Sean Brady, Kamloops This Week
Thompson Rivers University is considering whether it should revoke the honorary degree given to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond in 2009.
Turpel-Lafond, the former representative for children and youth in B.C., is the subject of recent controversy over her claimed Indigenous heritage.
She was given an honorary doctor of laws degree by TRU in 2009. At the time, the university said Turpel-Lafond “broke new ground for Aboriginal women in this country” when she became the “first tenured law professor of Aboriginal heritage in Canada.”
In October 2022, a report by the CBC called Turpel-Lafond’s Indigenous heritage into question, alleging her claims of Cree ancestry, her claim of treaty Indian status, the community in which she said she was raised and her stated academic accomplishments were “inconsistent with publicly available documents.”
A newly formed group called the Indigenous Women’s Collective responded shortly after the article was published and called upon universities to rescind their honorary degrees.
That group is now calling on Canada’s Governor General to rescind Turpel-Lafond’s Order of Canada, which was awarded to her in 2021.
In an unattributed statement provided to KTW, a university spokesperson said the TRU senate’s awards and honours committee has begun considering whether or not it will rescind the degree.
The university contacted Turpel-Lafond to ask if she would like to address the committee and a response from her legal counsel has been received by the university, according to the spokesperson.
“TRU will respect and follow our internal protocols regarding this process, which is outlined in our honorary degree policy,” the statement concludes.
That policy states an honorary degree can be revoked upon the recommendation of the awards and honours committee, the senate and the president “if TRU was unaware of the conduct at the time that the decision to award the honorary degree was made.”
On Feb. 10, the University of Regina senate voted to rescind the honorary degree conferred to Turpel-Lafond in 2003.
In a news release, that university cited “evidence that has emerged in the media with respect to Turpel-Lafond’s claims of Indigenous heritage/ancestry” and “a number of other stated credentials and academic achievements [that] have shown to be untrue.”
“ … Her accomplishments are outweighed by the harm inflicted upon Indigenous academics, peoples and communities when non-Indigenous people misrepresent their Indigenous ancestry,” the release reads.
In December 2022, TRU president Brett Fairbairn said the university is taking steps to prevent Indigenous identity fraud at the school in response to media reports about Turpel-Lafond. He cited a report conducted by Jean Teillet, commissioned by the University of Saskatchewan, that recommended a vetting policy that includes consultation with Indigenous communities.