The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs says it’s standing with Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, after a CBC News investigation was released Wednesday (Oct. 13), questioning her claims to Cree heritage.
In their own statement later in the day, the UBCIC said it is up to Indigenous people and communities to determine who belongs, not media.
“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,” the union said.
“Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has been a fierce, ethical, and groundbreaking advocate for Indigenous peoples for decades including representing the UBCIC for more than five years and a long working relationship before that. We have known her work to be of the highest order, and her integrity to be beyond reproach.”
The CBC News story digs into Turpel-Lafond’s past and finds contradicting information between the Cree heritage she has claimed, and which has characterized her career as an accomplished scholar and former judge, and historical records of her family and hometown.
The 59-year-old, and dozens of news stories written about her over the years, say she was born in Norway House or on a Manitoba reserve, but CBC News found it was more likely she grew up in Niagara Falls. They also found genealogical records didn’t back Turpel-Lafond’s claims. For her part, Turpel-Lafond told CBC News her dad was “raised speaking Cree, with Cree values, beliefs and way of life… with hunting, trapping and fishing.”
The UBCIC said it is their understanding that Chief Kelly Wolfe of Muskeg Lake First Nation, and her kinship family, all confirm that Dr. Turpel-Lafond is part of their community under their Indigenous laws.
“It is not the role of the media, the crown, or anyone else to tell us who we are,” the union added. “Investigations into the ancestry of individuals, filled with personal photos and digging into private matters, does not move justice, rights implementation, and reconciliation forward.”
Turpel-Lafond is well-known in B.C. for her recent work investigating racism in the health care system, and her subsequent report In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in B.C. Health Care, as well as her legal efforts with Heiltsuk grandfather and granddaughter Maxwell Johnson and Tori-Anne who were wrongfully handcuffed outside a Vancouver BMO in 2019.
Turpel-Lafond is also the former director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and a current tenured law professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law. In a statement to Black Press Media, UBC said it couldn’t comment on any personal information regarding Turpel-Lafond but that when hiring for Indigenous scholarship or leadership roles it relies on self-identification by candidates.
“UBC understands that the issue of Indigenous identity is complex and is committed to working collaboratively with Indigenous peoples as we all seek to navigate these issues and refine these important decision-making processes,” it said.