Retired senator Lillian Dyck said she was “stunned” to see reports last fall questioning the Indigenous heritage of former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, whose story she had related to, and whose career she had celebrated.
Dyck, who is Cree and Chinese Canadian, said in an interview on Thursday she thought “hallelujah” as Turpel-Lafond became Saskatchewan’s first Indigenous female judge in 1998.
It was “wonderful” to know Turpel-Lafond had overcome the numerous challenges Indigenous women disproportionately face in their personal lives and careers, said the professor emeritus in psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan.
“And then I found out, it was all a facade.”
Dyck said a CBC investigation convinced her that Turpel-Lafond lied about being Indigenous, specifically Cree, causing real harm by exploiting the identity of Indigenous women, of whom many in Canada are underserved and vulnerable.
“Canadians know now (Indigenous women) are more likely to face violence, more likely to be murdered, made missing, and she’s used that identity to enhance her curriculum vitae. And to me, that was like the lowest thing you could do.”
Dyck is among the signatories of a statement released this week calling on 10 universities to revoke the honorary degrees conferred on Turpel-Lafond.
Eight of the 10 schools the Indigenous Women’s Collective singled out have confirmed they’re taking steps to review the matter, while two have yet to respond to requests for comment sent Wednesday.
Dyck said she read the citations linked to the honorary degrees, many of which mention Turpel-Lafond’s supposed lived experiences as an Indigenous person.
“She looks as though she’s really risen into the top … despite all the barriers people like myself have had to face,” said Dyck, whose mother’s government-recognized Cree status was stripped from her when she married Dyck’s Chinese father.
The appropriation of Indigenous identity by so-called “pretendians” deprives Indigenous people of jobs and opportunities to make change for the better, Dyck said, adding that it also affects future generations of Indigenous children.
The Indigenous Women’s Collective says its members want to ensure their “children’s and grandchildren’s indigeneity will be respected and protected.”
Any organization or leader claiming to uphold truth and reconciliation must denounce any “infringements,” the statement adds.
The statement was issued on Tuesday after Vancouver Island University announced Turpel-Lafond had returned a 2013 honorary doctorate of laws. The school had told her it was under review due to requests from the collective and members of the university community.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Turpel-Lafond declined to comment on the calls for her honorary degrees to be revoked or the universities’ review processes.
She previously told the CBC that while she was growing up she didn’t question the biological parentage of her father, who she has said was Cree.
Turpel-Lafond served as British Columbia’s representative for children and youth and, until last month, she was a tenured law professor at the University of B.C.
Until last year, she also served as the academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the university.
In addition to the CBC investigation, Dyck said Turpel-Lafond’s “evasion” in response to questions about her heritage have contributed to Dyck’s conclusion that she is not Indigenous, with status recognized by the federal government.
“It would have been so easy for her to prove her identity. If she’s claiming to be a treaty Cree Indian, all she had to do was pull out her treaty card.”
Along with revoking Turpel-Lafond’s honorary degrees, Dyck said she wants to see the universities take a stand, stating publicly it’s wrong and unacceptable to pretend to be Indigenous, and there should be consequences, such as termination.
The University of Regina along with Carleton, McGill, Brock, Royal Roads, Mount Saint Vincent and St. Thomas universities have all confirmed they’ve taken steps to look into Turpel-Lafond’s case.
A statement from Simon Fraser University said a committee had been formed to put a policy in place that includes procedures for revoking an honorary degree.
It said once that policy is approved, the university will determine the next steps.
Responses haven’t been received from Thompson Rivers and York universities.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2023.