UBC officials speak on Turpel-Lafond, Indigenous identity

After months of relative silence, leaders at the University of British Columbia have issued a lengthy public statement about the controversy surrounding Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Turpel-Lafond left the university in December, more than two months after a CBC report raised questions about her claimed Indigenous background. 

In response to the initial reporting, UBC said only that Indigenous identity had not been an explicit requirement during the hiring process for the Academic Director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, one of two positions Turpel-Lafond held at the university.

In their statement on Tuesday, interim president and vice-chancellor Deborah Buszard and provost and vice-president academic Gage Averill acknowledged that this response was lacking.

“While factually correct, it would have also been understood that (Indigenous identity) was an implicit expectation,” the pair wrote in their letter to the UBC Vancouver community.

“The media reported UBC’s initial statement as constituting support for Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, and the silence from UBC about that interpretation has been viewed as confirmation,” the letter continues. “We deeply regret the impact of this and promise to do more now, and in the future.”

UBC leadership was also criticized earlier this month for not weighing in further on the controversy after Turpel-Lafond left their employment. 

While the university cited privacy concerns as its reason for not saying more about the situation, experts told CTV News general statements about the issue of Indigenous identity and credentials would likely have been fair game.

In their statement, Buszard and Averill described UBC’s response to the controversy as inadequate, particularly with regard to engaging Indigenous faculty, staff and students.

“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,” the letter reads. “We believe that we should have met more promptly with the UBC Indigenous community. As we note below, we are taking steps to do that now.”

The statement also addresses claims of Indigenous ancestry by people who do not have it, without elaborating on the specifics of Turpel-Lafond’s situation.

“The possibility that anyone might misrepresent themselves for personal and professional benefit, or that misleading credentials or publications might be submitted for employment, is one that we take extremely seriously, as these kinds of actions undermine the fundamental mission of a university, divert resources from deserving individuals and strengthen inequities,” Buszard and Averill wrote.

The full letter to the UBC community can be read on the university’s website. 


Also on Tuesday, Vancouver Island University announced that it had accepted the return of an honorary doctorate of laws that it gave to Turpel-Lafond in 2013.

“Turpel-Lafond informed VIU of her decision to voluntarily return the honour after receiving correspondence from the university that it would be moving forward with a process regarding her honorary doctorate,” a statement from that university reads.

“VIU initiated this process following requests from members of the VIU community and calls from the Indigenous Women’s Collective to review Turpel-Lafond’s continued eligibility to hold VIU’s highest honour. As this matter is now concluded, VIU will not provide further comment on Turpel-Lafond’s specific case.” 

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