Indigenous prof says UBC's silence on Turpel-Lafond controversy casts 'shadow' on institution
Internal university email says the university wanted to avoid doing ‘damage control’
Daniel Justice says he and other Indigenous colleagues were met with silence by the University of British Columbia (UBC) for more than two months, despite their best efforts to raise concerns about how the institution was handling the controversy around former UBC professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
On Oct. 12, a CBC investigation found that genealogical evidence indicated Turpel-Lafond was of entirely European ancestry, despite the fact she had claimed for decades to be a treaty Indian of Cree ancestry. The investigation also raised concerns about false claims she had made regarding her academic achievements.
She no longer works for the university, as of Dec. 16, but UBC won't say why.
In a statement to other media outlets, Turpel-Lafond indicated that she retired to focus "on my health, family and spiritual journey."
Justice said he's not happy with how UBC handled this from the outset.
"The university comes out very strongly in defence of her at the very beginning," recalled Justice, an Indigenous UBC professor. "All of the concern — the public concern — was protecting Mary Ellen."
In a statement to the Globe and Mail the day the story was published, UBC praised Turpel-Lafond's work as the head of UBC's Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. It declined to comment on her Indigenous ancestry claims, noting that they played no role in the decision to hire her.
Justice said that approach stands in stark contrast to how the university treated him and other Indigenous professors who expressed concern.
"There was not any public acknowledgement that there were other people who were hurt by this and other relationships that were hurt by this," said Justice.
"It's hard not to look at all of that and not feel a little bit abandoned by the institution."
- Cindy Blackstock says birth certificate convinced her that Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has no Cree ancestry
Candis Callison, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous journalism, media and public discourse at UBC, said the institution's response has cast an "unnecessary shadow" over UBC.
She said UBC went silent after its initial defence of Turpel-Lafond, rather than publicly acknowledging the seriousness of the concerns raised and committing to look into them.
"UBC looks like a very closed-door place for people to want to express concerns about something that affects us all," she said. "It doesn't appear that the university took into consideration many of the concerns that were expressed privately and directly."
Silence 'a terrible idea'
An internal UBC email leaked to CBC provides some insight into the decision making process as the university found itself in the midst of what Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason has called a "full-on scandal."
The email was sent on Jan. 2 by UBC provost Gage Averill to a group of non-Indigenous professors who raised concerns about the growing controversy. CBC asked UBC questions about the email but it declined to respond, indicating it "represents an internal discussion around a very complex topic."
CBC's story broke on Oct. 12. Averill said that day was a time of transition for the institution, noting it "was published by the CBC on the evening before our acting president, Deborah Buszard, took office." After six years as president, Santa Ono had left UBC for the University of Michigan.
Averill said the university received some questions about the story from the Globe and Mail.
"Although our comms team released a quick statement at the beginning of this issue, that was only a terse (and maybe not perfect, from my POV) response to some specific questions from a reporter," Averill wrote.
He indicated that going forward, the university had decided that silence was the preferred approach.
"The university has not issued a broader communication, as our concerns are foremost for our community," he wrote. "I have just wanted to avoid any hint of the institution doing 'damage control' or responding in an knee-jerk way."
Jean Teillet, a Métis lawyer and expert in Indigenous rights law, said that statement is amusing.
"I love that line," she said. "That's just like admitting the obvious. You are doing damage control and everybody knows it, and the fact that you're hiding just contributes to that."
Teillet, who investigated Carrie Bourassa and her false claims to Indigenous ancestry for the University of Saskatchewan, said she learned from that experience that everyone's observing and taking note.
"UBC's got their head in the sand, it seems to me, if they don't think that the rest of academia is carefully watching what they do," she said. "So this idea that they don't have to face the music in any public way at all, I think it's a terrible idea."
In the internal email, UBC's provost Averill said to the faculty that "anytime there is a credible charge of misrepresentation, the University would have to undertake some kind investigation."
But he said due to privacy law, he couldn't say what, if anything, the university did in the Turpel-Lafond's case.
"No matter how much anyone would like to know about such things, I am not permitted by law to say anything about any particular individual," Averill wrote.
Callison is puzzled by that claim. She noted that in 2021, when the University of Saskatchewan faced a similar situation with professor Carrie Bourassa, it announced it was investigating the matter.
"Even just to say 'we are investigating' would have been a huge leap forward at some point during the last two almost three months," she said.
Callison said she wrote private emails to university administrators and was part of a group of Indigenous academics that wrote a letter raising concerns as well. She also made her views known publicly in a podcast about the Turpel-Lafond situation.
Despite all of that, the university has still failed to reach out to her directly, she said.
"It seems like UBC is just hoping it will blow over, but that won't happen," she said.
UBC plans to connect with Indigenous faculty and staff
The internal email said that immediately after the story broke, the provost and the new acting president sought counsel from advisors.
"There was an early consideration of a meeting with all Indigenous faculty and staff," Averill wrote. "But it was suggested that the issue was at the time too raw, and that it may not be appropriate to have conflictual and emotional discussions among Indigenous community members in front of university administrators at that time."
Stephen Petrina, vice-president of the faculty association at UBC, said the idea that such a conversation is "too raw" is insulting.
This wasn't the first time UBC administration had urged restraint in the face of the Turpel-Lafond revelations. Ngai Pindell, the dean of UBC's law school, wrote an email to students shortly after the story broke.
"While it is natural that you might wish to discuss the story with colleagues, classmates and friends, please be mindful of the potential that what you say may exacerbate a difficult situation for someone you are engaging with."
Petrina said universities exist to have hard conversations about delicate and important topics, and they do that all of the time. Instead, he said, the university decided "that an issue of false identity claims and false credential claims would be too raw, too sensitive for our faculty or staff or students to countenance and that the best approach was, again, silence."
Averill said in his email that instead of that broader conversation, administrators decided to meet with the president's advisory committee on Indigenous affairs as a first step.
That meeting took place on Dec. 12, two full months after the story broke.
Teillet said that may seem like a long time to wait for such a meeting, but that she has learned through dealing with universities that they operate on different time tables than the rest of society.
"I thought I knew bureaucracies, because I've been dealing with the federal government for most of my career, and you know, that's massive bureaucracy," she said. "It's nothing compared to the knots the university ties itself up in."
New policy in the works
Averill said in his email that until that time, UBC had relied on self-identification to determine Indigenous ancestry when offering Indigenous-specific jobs or scholarships.
He said that because the university had hired B.C.-based academics in many cases, "this system was buttressed by the familiarity that many of our Indigenous colleagues have with either the individual applicants or their home communities — thus, self-reporting was enhanced with community knowledge."
But, he acknowledged, "this did not work in the case of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who came to UBC from decades of highly lauded work for the province, as a former advisor to the National Chief of the [Assembly of First Nations], and with a reputation of an advocate."
He said this situation has convinced the university that it needs to develop a new policy and that the university would begin consulting with Indigenous faculty, staff and others in the new year.
"This will not be a quick process, but we want to do it right, to be intentional and respectful, and to have it Indigenous led, but with strong support from the administration," Averill wrote.
He said so far, the president and provost have been told by advisors to look for B.C. Indigenous perspectives and "not to adopt made-in-other-province solutions such as the Queen's University or U [of] Saskatchewan approaches."
This is baffling to Teillet. She said last year, in the wake of the Carrie Bourassa controversy, First Nations University in Regina held a national conference on identity fraud.
"The whole idea was to learn from each other and to not have to reinvent the wheel, as everybody gains more experience in drafting policies to go through this," she said.
Teillet is the author of an almost 100-page report for the University of Saskatchewan on Indigenous identity fraud. It is the result of her months long investigation of the Carrie Bourassa situation.
"So the idea that an academic institution is closed off to learning from how others have dealt with the same issue seems to me to be bizarre," she said.
Justice said he's glad the university is looking forward by planning to develop a new policy, but hopes the university will also examine what went wrong.
"It's one thing to say 'It didn't work.' It's another thing entirely to talk about why it didn't work," he said. "And the 'why' matters here."
He said he believes that the university is being careful out of a "sincere concern to not make things worse," but that it can't ignore the past.
"There are actually concerns about the integrity of the process with that particular hire," Justice told CBC. "I guess my concern is if we don't do some looking back, how are we going to know what went wrong so that we don't replicate it again?"