On Feb. 22, 2019, Vianne Timmons walked onto stage holding an eagle feather — gifted by a student — with her newly awarded Indspire trophy resting against her hip.
“I’m sad that I wasn’t raised knowing it but excited that I have the opportunity to learn more and ... my father did not have that opportunity.”
The president of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador says she has always been careful to make the distinction that she has Mi’kmaw heritage but is not Indigenous — despite accepting an honour that Indspire calls one of the most prestigious awards by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people.
In the past, she has publicly aligned herself with Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation, an unrecognized band. The membership was cited repeatedly in her CV and biographies for multiple appointments, including a national advisory board.
Now a CBC News investigation is raising questions about the clarity of her claims, the amount of research the top academic has done herself about her ancestry, and what doors — if any — have been opened for her as a result.
“Indigenous identity is challenging, right? It is a very complex process and I’ve always been very, very careful about saying that I’m of Indigenous heritage and really being clear on that,” Timmons said in an interview with CBC News on Feb. 28.
“That’s been important to me.”
The topic of Indigenous identity and how it is defined has been marked in recent years by high-profile individuals whose claims have been scrutinized. It led to a larger discussion of identity, what it means to be Indigenous, and how that designation has given opportunities to some, while denying them for others.
CBC’s investigation was prompted by questions raised by individuals, including those in Indigenous communities, across Canada.
Understanding that the issue of identity is complex, nuanced and deeply personal, CBC examined the Timmons family tree using publicly available genealogical and historical records and with the analysis and opinions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts and academics.
‘You know, Vianne, we’re Mi’kmaq’
Timmons grew up in western Labrador, where her father worked as a miner.
Beginning by teaching on a reserve in British Columbia, Timmons’s life has long been interwoven with Indigenous communities. She’s been called a defender of Indigenous education.
She said she did not know about her paternal connection to Mi’kmaw heritage until she was in her 30s. Her father told her as she was doing research in family literacy throughout Atlantic Canadian Mi’kmaw communities.
“I was telling my father about my work and he says to me, ‘You know, Vianne, we’re Mi’kmaq’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Timmons said in a 2019 acceptance speech for the Indspire Awards.
“And he said, ‘Well, we’re Mi’kmaq but I was raised to be ashamed of it so I hid it, all my life.’”
In the decades since she learned of her family’s hidden past, Timmons has pushed for equity in education for Indigenous students.
Timmons said her father was ashamed of his Mi’kmaw heritage, which is why it was hidden. She recalls her father telling stories of being called derogatory terms by his own mother, and that he asked Timmons and her siblings to acknowledge their heritage and be proud of it.
Timmons said her father did a lot of work before his death to investigate family lineage, and she recalls a time when a Mormon visited the family home to validate the documentation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is known for its expertise in the field of genealogy as part of its religion and the importance it puts on strengthening family units.
“It goes back to my father’s great-great-grandmother, identified as Mi’kmaw in the census and then her parents. So that is five generations for me back,” Timmons said of her Indigenous ancestor.
CBC News could not find a census identifying her great-great-great grandmother, Marie Benoit, as Mi’kmaw.
Université de Moncton professor Stephen White, whom the American-French Genealogical Society considers the foremost expert in Acadian genealogy, said he is not aware of such a document.
The only census CBC could locate that names Benoit is from 1871 — Canada’s first census after becoming a country. The document states her origin as being French.
When asked for the census, Timmons said it is likely in a binder of her father’s extensive genealogical research at her family home in Nova Scotia.
Other documents provided by Timmons state that her nine-times-great grandfather was Mi’kmaw. However, those same documents said both his parents emigrated to Canada from France. Mitochondrial DNA testing — mtDNA is inherited exclusively from the mother — has further confirmed that his mother is of European descent. Mothers of Acadia, a group that works to test descendants of the maternal forebears in Acadia, carried out the testing.
The research provided the Treaty of 1749, of which a Capt. Pierre Bennoit was a signatory. White says the captain was likely a high-ranking member of an Indigenous community. However, there is no other evidence to suggest it is Timmons’s ancestor of the same name.
Documents Timmons provided also reference a couple seven generations back who were “registered as Mi’kmaq.” White could not find such a document to support the claim, nor could CBC News.
It may be the case, though it is not cited in records, that certain family members were accepted into Mi’kmaw communities, despite not having Indigenous ancestry.
White, the author of Genealogy Dictionary of Acadian Families said his interpretation is Timmons’ great-great-great grandmother, Marie Benoit, is one-sixteenth Mi’kmaw.
That lineage ties back to two Mi’kmaw ancestors born in the 1600s in Nova Scotia.
CBC News could not find any proof of any other Indigenous ancestor less than 10 times removed.
When faced with this information, Timmons said her documentation says otherwise.
“I have nothing to dispute what my father had in the genealogy,” she said.
While Timmons is committed to the story she was told by her father, her thoughts on her Indigenous connections have wavered before.
‘Member of the Bras d'Or Mi’kmaq First Nation’
It appears Timmons began noting as early as 2011 in her professional biographies online that she was a member of the Bras d’Or First Nation in Cape Breton. The group formed around 2007.
Neither the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq — a tribal organization that represents 13 of the province’s recognized First Nations — nor the federal government recognizes that group as a First Nation.
According to a statement by Indigenous Services Canada, the group has not applied for band recognition. “To our knowledge, no formal meetings or discussions [with federal officials] have taken place,” says the statement.
Ray Donovan, who the group identifies as the chief, tells CBC News that the group stands by its claim to Indigeneity and plans on contacting the federal government to commence discussions.
Timmons said she became a member around 2009 when her oldest brother submitted the family’s genealogy to the band.
“They actually sent me a membership card to the Bras d’Or band. And at that time I did acknowledge it,” Timmons said.
“But then I looked into it on my own and I didn’t feel comfortable identifying as a member of a band that wasn’t official or as a member of a band anyway because I was not raised Mi’kmaw and so I removed it and never referred to it again.”
However, in archived websites and contemporaneous postings, the line “member of Bras d’Or First Nation” was used until 2018.
In professional CVs, biographies for boards and appointments, and news articles — particularly in the time period between 2011 and 2018 — Timmons has repeated her Mi’kmaw heritage.
Those same biographies — including for the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments — stated that she was also a member of Bras d’Or First Nation.
Timmons was appointed in 2018 to serve on the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments, a non-partisan body that provides the prime minister with recommendations on nominations to the Senate. Her biography listed for that position states that she is a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation. However, that line was removed from her bio when she sat on the same committee in 2021. Timmons said she did not notify the federal government that she was no longer a member of the unrecognized First Nation.
Other references have been included in biographies and articles, including:
Keynote speaker, Atlantic Human Rights Centre, 2012.
- University of Northern British Columbia Speaker Series, 2017.
- The University of Regina Magazine, Degrees, 2018.
- University Affairs Magazine article “Indigenizing the Academy,” 2016.
- Canadian Board Diversity Council, 2013.
- Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments, 2018.
- Keynote speaker, Northern and Remote Health Network, 2016.
- Acadia University, Bulletin magazine, 2016.
- Aboriginal Diversity 50 nomination list, 2015.
Archival captures on the University of Regina website show Timmons’s biography was changed in 2018 to remove the reference to her membership with Bras d’Or. There is no reference to her ever publicly clarifying that she is no longer affiliated with that group.
Timmons said she remembers only paying the $25 membership fee for one year.
“Well, I removed it [the reference] fairly quickly. If it was stated it would have been maybe on the Internet or something where you put a CV and it stays forever, but I did not … definitely in the last, you know, number of years and I never used it as an identifier,” Timmons said.
Just removing the reference to Bras d’Or doesn’t go far enough, according to Tyler Sack of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, a tribal council that provides programs and advisory services to First Nations communities in Nova Scotia.
“Knowing better is one thing and doing better is another, right? Is it enough to just stop the harm?” said Sack, whose graduate research focused on identity construction, cultural authenticity and decolonization. Sack is not speaking on behalf of the confederacy.
“I would say it’s not enough and that some more restorative measures have to be taken being public about it.”
Sack, who considers both Membertou and Sipekne’katik First Nations as his home communities, says Bras d’Or is not considered Mi’kmaw among the Indigenous communities in the province.
Sack said for Timmons not to be upfront about stepping back from her association with Bras d’Or publicly was analogous to reconciliation; it is not enough to stop a harm, restorative steps must be taken.
Timmons said she did nothing wrong by not publicly disclosing that she no longer belonged to Bras d’Or. She said she did set the record straight if she was asked directly about it.
“I wasn’t asked very often but a couple of times people said, you know, ‘You’re part of the Bras d’Or band,’ and I would say it’s a non-recognized band. And no, I’m not. I was not raised in the culture and it was part of my own learning and understanding and my journey. So I have said that,” Timmons said.
Timmons was president and vice-chancellor at the University of Regina from 2008 to 2019. She has been recognized for her work to Indigenize post-secondary education and is credited with helping save funding for First Nations University.
In 2010, both the federal and Saskatchewan governments announced they were cutting the funding for First Nations University. Timmons is credited with helping save the school, which is under the umbrella of the University of Regina.
“I worked very closely with the students at First Nations University and we worked very hard, got the funding reinstated,” Timmons said.
“The institution is a thriving institution today.”
It was that work which led to her being honoured with the 2019 Indspire Award for education, she said.
“When that was offered to me, I actually turned it down. I went back to them and said I do not identify as Mi’kmaw, so I’m not comfortable accepting this,” Timmons said.
“They came back and said, ‘We know you don’t identify as Mi’kmaw. It’s very clear in the nomination we received, the reason we’re providing the award was your work you did, particularly around First Nations University.’”
Timmons said she has no regrets about accepting the award because she consulted with an elder in Regina before agreeing to it. Indspire did not respond to CBC’s request for comment.
“She was very clear that by accepting it, I was acknowledging the work that was done, but also acknowledging my ancestors. So I was not comfortable at first taking it until I consulted with the elders,” Timmons said.
CBC News asked Timmons: “Did the elder know your relative was from the 1600s—”
“Yes,” Timmons interjected.
“—and not the 1800s?”
A year after accepting the Indspire award, Timmons was appointed as president and vice-chancellor of Memorial University. The press release announcing the position did not mention any connection to Indigenous ancestry but did mention the award.
In response to a recent CBC News access-to-information request that asked for the CV Timmons provided when she applied for the president’s job, Memorial University said it had “no records responsive to your request.”
The university’s response added that Memorial did not retain any records of applications from the presidential search process handled by a third-party executive search firm.
On Wednesday afternoon, hours after the publication of this story, the university circulated Timmons’s resume, saying the Board of Regents did have a copy, as part of the recommendation and approval process in 2019.
That CV does not mention membership in Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation.
Since taking on the new role, Timmons has publicly claimed her great-great — and sometimes great-great-great — grandmother was a Mi’kmaw woman named Marie Therese Benoit from Conne River, a reserve on Newfoundland’s south coast.
“I wasn’t raised in the Mi’kmaw culture but my great-great-grandmother was a Mi’kmaw woman from Conne River,” Timmons told reporters at the December 2019 press conference.
“Marie Therese Benoit grew up there with seven brothers and then moved to Tracadie, Nova Scotia, and married a Timmons, and that is my heritage. So I am of Mi’kmaw heritage.”
Conne River connection
When asked about that quote, Timmons said she misspoke.
“That wasn’t quite accurate because I had done that quickly. And it was Marie Benoit and she had lived with her brothers in Newfoundland then moved to Nova Scotia and got married.”
But Timmons repeated that claim in a question and answer session on leadership in November 2020. The video was posted on Memorial University’s YouTube channel.
“I want to be authentic to that part of my life and that part of my person and, you know, my great-great grandmother was from Conne River. Marie Therese Benoit and, you know, so I’m of Mi’kmaw ancestry,” Timmons said.
In fact, her ancestor she’s referencing is named Marie Marguerite Benoit who is her third great-grandmother, not second.
Sack is hesitant to give much weight — if any — to the idea of blood quantum defining one’s Indigeneity.
He says the discussion of claims to Indigeneity can be fraught with harm for those who were removed from their Indigenous communities without choice.
But, for Sack, the claims made by Timmons — while not specific — breach trust that Indigenous people have when a person is self-identifying.
“It’s frustrating to me to see someone misrepresenting Indigeneity by claiming to be part of a First Nation that’s A. unrecognized and then B. not being able to contextualize the relations that they have within that community or to the greater nation as a whole,” Sack said.
“Even if there is no overt claim that’s discreet in saying a connection to ancestor A or ancestor B, it’s misleading.… It might not be an overt lie, but I would say it’s deception.”
Timmons said she is still on a path of learning about her own identity and will continue to honour her ancestors as she learns about her family and their story.
She reiterated that sentiment in a letter published in MUN’s Gazette on Tuesday, ahead of CBC’s story.
In the piece, which was sent to students and faculty, Timmons again said she was clear when she spoke of her Mi’kmaw heritage and vowed to continue learning.
“Falsely claiming Indigenous identity is categorically wrong and harms Indigenous people. That is why I make the distinction I do about my heritage. I felt I was always very clear,” Timmons said.
“I recognize the changing context of the world we live in, and will be more cognizant in the future of when and how I share information about my heritage and strive to make the distinction even clearer.”
The story has been updated to include information about Vianne Timmons’s CV, in relation to the presidential search process at Memorial University in 2019.
A previous version of this story said Tyler Sack indicated Timmons missed opportunity in reconciliation by not publicly stepping back from Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation, and that that direct comment was put to Timmons.
However, Sack said not taking restorative action is an analogy for reconciliation.
Timmons responded to Sack’s comment that misrepresenting Indigeneity by claiming to be part of an unrecognized band and being unable to contextualize relations is misleading. Her response is contained above.
A previous version of this story indicated the reference to Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation in Vianne Timmon’s biography for the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments was removed in 2018. In fact, that line was missing from her bio when she sat on the same committee in 2021.