By 2014, the honorary doctorates had almost become routine.
That spring, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond took centre stage at the McGill Law School commencement ceremony, dressed in a scarlet academic robe, to receive her eighth honorary doctor of laws degree.
“Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour of presenting to you a passionate advocate for the rights of children and a distinguished jurist committed to justice for Canada’s First Nations,” said Daniel Jutras, then-dean of the law school.
WATCH | Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond receives honorary doctorate from McGill University:
A 2021 recipient of the Order of Canada, Turpel-Lafond is considered to be one of the most accomplished and decorated Indigenous scholars in Canadian history.
She rose to national prominence during the Charlottetown Accord debates in the 1990s as a constitutional adviser to Ovide Mercredi, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Former prime minister Joe Clark was quoted as saying “anyone involved in constitutional negotiations will tell you that they would prefer to have Mary Ellen on their side rather than on the other side.”
The 59-year-old Harvard- and Cambridge-educated lawyer and professor says she’s biologically Cree through her father, who grew up on the Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba. She has also said she’s a treaty Indian who was originally connected to Norway House. Later in life, she transferred to her husband’s community: the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
A 1989 academic article she wrote about Indigenous people and the Canadian Constitution included a biography that referenced her First Nations name: “Mary Ellen Turpel is Aki-Kwe. Born of a Cree father and an Anglo-Canadian mother.”
In 1998, she was appointed as a provincial court judge in Saskatchewan, which she has said made her “the first treaty Indian to be appointed to the court“ in the province’s history. She has said her “First Nations background and Cree background” brought “extra value to my understanding of what I see in the courtroom.”
A 2017 Globe and Mail story said that amid growing pressure to put an Indigenous jurist on the Supreme Court, Turpel-Lafond’s name was one of two most commonly mentioned.
Late last year, however, CBC received tips that raised questions about Turpel-Lafond’s claims to Indigenous ancestry.
Indigenous scholars and politicians say there is a growing problem in this country of non-Indigenous people taking away opportunities from First Nations, Métis and Inuit people by improperly claiming Indigenous ancestry.
Questions about Turpel-Lafond’s background have actually followed her for decades. A 1995 profile in the Ottawa Citizen said “she was the target of a whisper campaign during the Charlottetown debate. Indians opposed to the deal said Turpel wasn’t really an Indian.” The reporter added that “during interviews for this profile, more than one person suggested checking into her Indian background.”
CBC decided to undertake an investigation. In the process, it examined records from archives across Canada, including genealogical records, census forms and voter registries, and reviewed more than 100 newspaper, magazine and journal articles and dozens of videos.
Understanding that the issue of Indigenous ancestry is complex, nuanced and deeply personal, CBC undertook its research in consultation with Indigenous academics and journalists.
CBC discovered that some of Turpel-Lafond’s claims about her Cree ancestry, her treaty Indian status, the community where she grew up and her academic accomplishments are inconsistent with publicly available documents.
Her story illuminates the complex, evolving debate around Indigenous identity in Canada — one marked by a growing clash of principles related to genetic ancestry, self-identification, colonial definitions of Indian status and the rights of Indigenous communities to claim people as their own.
‘Prove who you are’
Recently in this country, claims to Indigenous ancestry by a number of high-profile people in academia, the arts and other sectors have been questioned.
For example, a 2016 APTN story about author Joseph Boyden raised doubts about his claims to Indigenous ancestry. A 2020 CBC investigation raised similar concerns about filmmaker Michelle Latimer. In October 2021, CBC revealed that Carrie Bourassa, Canada’s leading Indigenous health scientist, appeared to be of entirely European ancestry.
Bourassa was suspended from her position by the University of Saskatchewan, and earlier this year, she resigned following an extensive independent investigation.
Until that point, the university had relied on the honour system — self-identification — when offering jobs or scholarships targeted for Indigenous people. A 28-person Indigenous task force appointed by the university after the Bourassa incident recommended the university begin to require proof of identity using documentation approved by Indigenous governments.
Following the announcement of the new policy in late July, Mark Arcand, the tribal chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, which represents seven Saskatchewan First Nations explained the new policy to CBC.
He was a member of the task force which, he says, concluded that when it comes to identity verification, for status or treaty Indians, “it’s very black and white and it’s simple.”
“If somebody said, ‘Prove who you are,’ boom, you can prove it right now,” said Arcand, who’s a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. That proof, he says, is the Indian status card. He said that card, issued by the federal government, verifies that at least one of your parents was themselves a status or treaty Indian.
“We are proud to show our citizenship through our status card and say, I’m a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation,” said Arcand. “I would encourage everyone to stand up and do that if you are being discredited or somebody doesn’t believe you, then prove it.”
Like Arcand, Turpel-Lafond says she’s a treaty Indian from Muskeg Lake. But she has declined to show her status card or even indicate whether she has one. She has also refused to offer any documentation demonstrating her Indigenous family tree.
“I have not and will not be sharing any private confidential personal records with any media outlet,” Turpel-Lafond wrote in an email.
She has declined repeated requests for an interview, but CBC did exchange emails with her over a period of several months. In that correspondence, CBC provided Turpel-Lafond with the findings of its investigation.
Remarkable success — against the odds
Turpel-Lafond’s rise was rapid.
She earned a bachelor’s degree by the time she was 19 and a law degree by 22. In 1989, she was appointed a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She was just 26.
By 1998, Turpel-Lafond was appointed as a provincial court judge in Saskatchewan. Then, in 2006, she was named British Columbia’s first Representative for Children and Youth.
Her most recent role, which began in 2018, was as the first director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. According to the university, in September 2021 Turpel-Lafond gave UBC notice that she would be leaving the center as of April. It said she remains a professor at UBC’s school of law.
Turpel-Lafond’s accomplishments have earned her international attention. In 1994, Time magazine named her one of “The Global 100” leaders of the new millennium, alongside the likes of Bill Gates and former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, for her role in Canada’s constitutional debates. In 1999, the magazine selected her one of the top Canadian “leaders for the 21st century,” recognized for her work building a “more inclusive legal system” and championing “restorative justice.”
It all seems even more astounding when set against her personal history.
“Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond grew up in poverty in Norway House, Manitoba,” Jutras told the crowd at the McGill ceremony in 2014. The Norway House is an isolated northern community consisting of the Norway House Cree Nation and a small municipality.
“As a child, she was surrounded by domestic violence. But she has lived her own life at a furious pace, urging other marginalized women to become the masters of their own destiny,” Jutras said.
CBC located more than a dozen news stories written over the past 30 years that addressed Turpel-Lafond’s early years. Virtually all indicate she was born and/or raised in Norway House or on a Manitoba reserve.
For example, a 2005 Saturday Night magazine article said she was “born on a reserve in Norway House, Manitoba, to a God-fearing Scottish mother and a Cree father,” adding that she was “in a community fighting for basic rights, such as education and freedom from discrimination and violence.”
In a story from March 1998, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix quotes her as saying, “As a First Nations person from Manitoba, I grew up in the shadow of Saskatchewan Indians.”
A 2007 Globe and Mail article described her childhood this way: “Growing up in poverty on a Manitoba reserve, Ms. Turpel-Lafond endured abuse and was surrounded by domestic violence and alcoholism in her home, a mirror of the upbringing experienced by many of the children she now encounters.”
That traumatic childhood also featured prominently in media coverage of her early days.
The Saturday Night magazine article described the home life she and her three older sisters experienced as children in Norway House. “Like so many Native homes, hers was rife with alcoholism, poverty and violence. She regularly witnessed her father striking her mother and suffered abuse herself.”
The December 1998 edition of The Indigenous Times reported that she “grew up with domestic violence and alcoholism in her home; she and her siblings suffered sexual abuse.” The article quotes her as saying, “We decided that we weren’t going to become victims in life… We were going to be survivors.”
Back in the 1990s, Joe Keeper, a 93-year-old Cree man who was born in Norway House, heard that Turpel-Lafond was claiming to be from his hometown. That didn’t ring true to the Korean War veteran, so he did a bit of research.
“That lady is such a mysterious woman,” Keeper told CBC in an interview earlier this year.
The first mystery he came across was indications that Turpel-Lafond wasn’t from Norway House at all, but was in fact born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Turpel-Lafond was born in February 1963. The 1996 edition of the Canadian Who’s Who publication says she was born in Niagara Falls.
Voting records seem to back this up. Her parents, William and Shirley Turpel, appear on the 1957 voting rolls in Niagara Falls and remained on them for decades.
The local Niagara Falls high school yearbooks contain photos of Turpel-Lafond and her oldest sister, Maureen. One photo shows Maureen was attending high school in Niagara Falls in 1970, when Turpel-Lafond would have been about seven years old. Family members have also told CBC that Turpel-Lafond grew up in Niagara Falls.
“There’s so many inconsistencies,” said Keeper. “It doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.”
In an email, CBC asked Turpel-Lafond directly whether she was born and raised in Norway House or Niagara Falls.
She refused to say.
“I don’t check every media story about me or my experience/history, nor am I accountable for how media or others portray me.”
The Norway House connection
Keeper, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Native studies at the University of Manitoba and was a founding member of the National Indian Council, said as far as he knows, Turpel-Lafond and her sisters never lived in Norway House.
But he said there was a Turpel family that lived in the community in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was a boy.
“There was a Doctor Turpel at Norway House. I remember him,” he said. “They were white people.… The Turpels were not Cree.”
The doctor was an employee of Indian Affairs. He served the residential school, the town and the surrounding First Nations communities. Keeper remembers Dr. Turpel well because when Keeper was a little boy, the doctor cured him of double pneumonia and then treated him for dysentery the very next year.
The doctor’s name was William Nicholson Turpel. His son was William Turpel, who was Turpel-Lafond’s father.
Keeper, who was appointed to the Order of Canada in the 1990s, said he knew William, or “Billy,” as a boy in Norway House. But he told the CBC reporter that “the first I ever heard of Billy being Indian was when I heard it from you.”
Turpel-Lafond won't discuss father's parentage
Turpel-Lafond says she is Cree because “my father, William, was Cree.”
“Dad was raised speaking Cree, with Cree values, beliefs and way of life… with hunting, trapping and fishing,” she said in a written statement to CBC. “He was raised with love by my grandparents.”
According to genealogical records, Dr. William Nicholson Turpel was of Irish, German and American ancestry, while his wife, Eleanor, was born in England to British parents. CBC asked Turpel-Lafond how her father could be Cree given that her grandparents had no obvious Indigenous roots.
Turpel-Lafond declined to answer or say who she believes her father’s biological parents were.
In the one passage that most directly addressed her father’s origins, she hinted at family secrets.
Those secrets appear to relate to her grandfather — in her emails to CBC, Turpel-Lafond focused almost exclusively on his role in her dad’s life. She discussed Dr. William Nicholson Turpel’s character, his relationships and his work at great length. She didn’t mention her grandmother’s name or refer to her directly.
“My dad was born during my grandfather’s time at Norway House. I was raised to not embarrass, shame or cause harm to families, and not to interfere. I respect my parents and all members of my family and I will never call anyone out. Growing up we did not question biological parentage.”
CBC asked if Turpel-Lafond could provide any documentation that would show her father’s parentage or birth date. She would only say that he was “born more than 90 years ago.”
While Turpel-Lafond declined to be interviewed, she did encourage CBC to speak with Ovide Mercredi about her ancestry claims, even providing his personal cellphone number. Mercredi is the former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations and the former chief of his home community, Misipawistik Cree Nation.
Mercredi, who wrote a bestselling book with Turpel-Lafond after they worked together during the Charlottetown debate, told CBC, “I have no doubt she has Cree ancestry,” adding “when she told me that she was from Norway House, I don’t doubt her.”
When CBC asked Mercredi what convinced him she was Cree, he said, “I don’t know the details in terms of her ties to which family and all that, but I don’t question her identity and I don’t doubt she can show her ties to a certain family in Norway House.”
He said given all that Turpel-Lafond has accomplished, “it’s unfortunate that she’s being placed in the position of having to prove who she is.”
William Turpel's parentage shrouded in mystery
Turpel-Lafond’s father, William, died in January 1987, following complications brought on by childhood diabetes.
His bloodline seems murky, even within his own family.
Jim Turpel, a veterinary surgeon in Niagara-on-the-Lake and a cousin to Turpel-Lafond, describes himself as a “science guy” who relies on facts. But he said when it comes to his Uncle Bill’s parentage, “I have no bloody idea.”
“The Turpels are shrouded in mystery,” he said.
Jim, whose dad was William Turpel’s younger brother, said that as a child, “I always thought my Uncle Bill was Indian.”
“And it never came up that my dad was Native and I never really asked anyone about that. It was just the naiveté of being a little kid,” he said.
Jim said he continues to believe his uncle was Indigenous. He said as an adult, his Uncle Bill looked very different from the rest of the family — shorter and stockier, with darker skin.
“It’s sort of like that Sesame Street song,” he said. “One thing here doesn’t belong.”
His behaviour was different, too.
He said Uncle Bill was a “wild” character with a “serious drinking problem” who “danced to the beat of a different drummer.” Jim also said he was the “perfect uncle” — “softhearted” and lots of fun to be around.
“He surrounded himself with these most bizarre people you could ever imagine. It was magical as a kid when I’d go visit him and he’d take me over to his friends’ place.”
Jim said his grandfather, Dr. Turpel, also took note of Uncle Bill’s eccentricities.
“I recall my grandfather frequently saying ‘that’s the Native in him’ when he would do something that no one seemed to understand, which was really frequent,” Jim said. He said he tried talking to his dad about Uncle Bill’s biological descent, but his father declined — a fact Jim found to be out of character for his father.
Jim’s mother, Barbara, told CBC she has her doubts that William was Indigenous, believing instead that he was the child of Dr. and Mrs. Turpel.
She said he and her husband “looked like brothers, although [William] was smaller.”
According to Barbara, Eleanor Turpel, who was a nurse, used to say, “Billy would be just like his brother if he hadn’t had diabetes. That’s why he didn’t grow that fast.’”
Another cousin, Jennifer Yarrow, told CBC she didn’t remember being told as a child that her Uncle Bill was Cree.
She said earlier in her life she became obsessed with some film footage her grandfather shot during his time in Norway House — and she studied the images of her grandparents, Uncle Bill and his siblings in depth.
“If you see pictures of them as children… they all look related,” Yarrow said. (CBC has been unable to obtain a copy of this footage.)
Yarrow recalled that in the late 1980s, one of Turpel-Lafond’s sisters told her “that Mary had done the research and that [Uncle Bill] was Cree.”
“And I was like, well, how do you explain that?” said Yarrow, who noted that her grandparents were of European ancestry.
“There was no response.”
When reached by phone, one of Turpel-Lafond’s sisters, Melinda Turpel, said that as a child, the identity of her father’s birth parents was “something you really didn’t talk about.” She told CBC she believes her dad was born in Norway House, but she’s not sure which year.
Despite the lack of information, she concluded her father was likely adopted from a Cree family.
“I believe [William Nicholson and Eleanor Turpel] were not his parents. They just took care of him and raised him like he was their own,” she said.
In the course of the conversation, she offered another theory — a possible affair.
“I think it was my grandfather and a Cree woman, if I had to say what it was.” Melinda said she thought the adoption story was the more likely explanation. “I would think my sisters would agree with that.”
Jim Turpel said in the end, the various stories about his uncle’s parentage are based on “speculation.”
“Unfortunately, there is just a huge lack of facts,” he told CBC. “I would love for you to find an answer.”
Turpel-Lafond's family part of Norway House 'colonial elite'
Looking for answers required a deep dive into historical records. CBC examined the history of Norway House and Turpel-Lafond’s family roots.
The story begins on Sept. 30, 1927, with what the Victoria Daily Times newspaper described as “a quiet wedding” between Doctor William Nicholson Turpel and Eleanor Rhoda Loosley. Dr. Turpel came from an influential family that ran a shipbuilding company in Victoria, while Loosley was a recently graduated nurse.
The wedding announcement noted the Turpels were leaving Victoria “on the midnight boat for the mainland” to start a new adventure in Norway House, Man.
On Oct. 13, 1927, a handwritten daily journal kept by A.C. Clarke, a Scotsman who ran the local Hudson Bay Company (HBC) store in Norway House, noted “the doctor is here to take charge of the hospital in place of Dr. Stone who left here in the spring.”
WATCH | Life in Norway House in the 1920s and ‘30s:
Norway House is about 450 kilometres north of Winnipeg, on the northeast end of Lake Winnipeg. At the time, it was only accessible by boat, plane or dogsled. When the Turpels arrived, Norway House was an active fur trading post; it used to be considered one of the most important posts along the Canadian fur trade route.
The Turpels didn’t live right in Norway House, where the reserve was located. Their home was a few kilometres away in Rossville, where the hospital, the Indian Agency and the United Church-run residential school were located.
The March 1927 edition of The Beaver, a magazine published by the HBC, said the population of Norway House in 1927 was made up of Cree Indians, “half-breeds” (mostly Cree-Scots) and “whites.”
“There are over 500 Indians and half-breeds and about seventy-five whites in the settlement,” the publication said.
Retired Métis law professor Marilyn Poitras said that at the time, reserves like Norway House were in the grips of a colonial system imposed by Canada’s Indian Act. The Indian agent, a representative of the federal Department of Indian Affairs, ran many aspects of First Nations people’s lives.
“The Indian agent knew every single person at the reserve,” said Poitras. “They knew how many pigs and how many cows were there. They knew how much wheat was there. Indians weren’t even allowed to sell or kill food or use their grain… because the Indian agent decided all of those things.”
WATCH | Archival footage of the Turpels in Norway House:
Doctor William Nicholson Turpel was an employee of Indian Affairs, serving the Norway House Indian Hospital and the local Indian residential school.
“The Turpels are part of a colonial elite,” said Mark Humphries, a history professor from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who helped CBC examine the historical records. “They’re part of an administrative system and structure that is part of Canada’s colonial past.”
As the only physician serving Norway House and multiple other isolated First Nations reserves, Dr. Turpel travelled all over the North. Part of his role was to examine all children who were being admitted to the residential school to ensure they were in good health.
Joe Keeper said Dr. Turpel was well-liked: “I never heard a bad word about him.” Keeper also noted that there was very little interaction between the “Indian” or “half-breed” people and the “whites.”
“At that time, there was a very strong caste system. It was like a colonial enclave,” said Keeper, who now lives in Winnipeg. “There were the administrators, the Indian agent, the doctor, the school teachers, civil servants. They didn’t mix socially with Indigenous people. Not at all.”
Entries from the HBC journal around that time seem to back that up. They show that there were “whites-only” dances, picnics and carpet bowling tournaments.
“I don’t remember ever going into a white person’s home when I was at Norway House. And I left there when I was 13,” Keeper said.
The Turpels have a baby
Sometime in early 1929, the Turpels realized Eleanor was pregnant and due in the summer. This posed a significant problem.
Every summer, as part of Canada’s obligation to treaty Indians, an entourage of dignitaries, including Dr. Turpel, would travel throughout the North for “treaty days.” That’s when federal representatives would give status Indians an annual payment promised in the treaties. According to an April 1929 Indian Affairs letter, the trip that year was planned for parts of July and August.
Humphries said the Turpels almost certainly realized the baby was going to be born while Dr. Turpel was travelling, and given that he was the only physician in the North, “if there was going to be an emergency situation, there’s not going to be a doctor immediately there.”
Humphries said that’s likely why, as soon as the spring thaw hit and the steamers started moving passengers again, Eleanor Turpel headed for Victoria. A July 6, 1929, brief on the Victoria Daily Times social news page said she had arrived “to spend several weeks here as the guest of friends.”
Almost three weeks later, the following birth announcement appeared in the newspaper: “Turpel — To Dr. and Mrs. W. N. Turpel (nee E. R. Loosley) of Norway House, Manitoba, a son, on July 24, at Jubilee Hospital.”
CBC has obtained a copy of the child’s baptismal record. The name listed is William Turpel. It says he was born July 24, 1929, in Victoria. According to the record, William was baptized in Norway House on March 27, 1932, at the age of about two and a half. The record lists his parents as “Dr. W.N. Turpel and E.R. Turpel.”
Humphries said the discovery of these two independent documents would make it seem unlikely that the Turpels adopted William. He said it would also seem to rule out the suggestion of an affair between Dr. Turpel and a Cree woman.
“It’s pretty unequivocal that Eleanor was the mother of William Turpel, at least from the records I’ve seen,” said Humphries.
When asked, Turpel-Lafond had no comment about the newspaper announcement. She said she had never seen the baptismal record before, but noted “in my experience, people listed as parents on church records may or may not be de facto biological parents.”
“The 1920s and 1930s were a repressive time, and misstated parentage is common, mostly due to shame for women,” she said.
Turpel-Lafond claims dad was adopted by Cree woman
In correspondence with CBC, Turpel-Lafond also claimed that a Cree midwife adopted and raised her father.
“The midwife, Mary Clarke, adopted my dad,” wrote Turpel-Lafond in an email to CBC. “She had lost a son and she ended up taking on my dad as her son.” She claimed Clarke and her grandfather, Dr. Turpel, “were very close.”
She offered no evidence to back up any of her claims about the adoption.
According to census records, a Cree woman called Mary Fletcher, whose maiden name was Clarke, did live in Norway House in 1926. A local history book, The Norway House Anthology Volume 2, says Fletcher was a “doctor” of sorts and a midwife.
In 1926, the 42-year-old woman lived with her husband and three children in Norway House. She was about 18 years older than Dr. Turpel.
CBC has been unable to locate any record connecting Mary Clarke/Fletcher and the Turpels.
However, there was a teenager named “Mary” who spent time in the Turpels’ home. According to Joe Keeper, a young Cree woman named Mary Poker, a distant relative of Keeper, worked as a maid for the Turpels during their time in Norway House.
Back in the 1990s, while Poker was still alive, Joe Keeper gave her a call as part of his informal investigation of Turpel-Lafond’s claims.
“I remember asking Mary if she remembered any Indian children Dr. Turpel had had there,” he said. “She couldn’t remember anyone, though.”
She did, however, remember Turpel-Lafond’s father. “But as far as Mary was concerned, [William] was [the Turpels’] child.”
Records show community saw Billy as son of Dr. and Mrs. Turpel
While Turpel-Lafond has claimed her dad was raised by a Cree woman, historical records and eyewitness testimony seem to indicate that throughout her father’s childhood, the people of Norway House saw him as the son of Dr. and Mrs. Turpel.
For example, in July 1930, Rev. Roscoe Chapin arrived in Norway House after having lived in an even more remote northern village as a United Church missionary for years.“ We almost felt that we were coming back to the centre of civilization,” Chapin wrote in his memoir. He said one of the key indicators of that to him was the presence of “white people all around us.”
“There was the residential school staff of ten or twelve, the Indian Agent, Mr. Gordon with his wife and son Jack, the hospital staff, Dr. Turpel and wife and a boy Billy, about Donny’s age.” Donny was Rev. Chapin’s son. His memoir says Donny and Billy became good friends.
A year and a half later, when Billy was two and a half, Anglican priest W.H.J. Walter baptized him in Norway House as the child of Dr. and Mrs. Turpel.
According to the 1927 edition of The Beaver, there were four day schools in Norway House. Churches ran three of them, which were exclusively for treaty Indian children.
The fourth was a public school “for white and non-treaty children.” That’s where Billy went.
According to school records, Billy first showed up in the one-room schoolhouse in February 1935, the youngest of 14 students ranging from five to 13 years of age. The child closest in age to Billy was a six-year-old boy named Joseph Irvin Keeper — Joe Keeper.
Even though Keeper is Cree, he did not attend one of the Indian schools because his father, Joseph Benjamin Keeper (a war hero and Canadian Olympian), had given up his Indian status for himself and his descendants when he served in the military. (As an adult, Joe Keeper successfully petitioned the federal government to get his status back.)
Keeper has a vivid memory of Billy Turpel.
“He lived about a mile and a half from the school,” he said. “He had a little toboggan and one dog that pulled the toboggan. And it wasn’t a husky, it was a big poodle. A brown poodle. He used to ride [the toboggan] to school every morning.”
When asked to describe Billy, Keeper said, “I do remember that he was a little white boy” and “not an Indian boy.” Keeper said he knows Billy lived at the doctor’s house because he would see him playing there.
Keeper said Norway House is a small community that’s deeply intertwined, but he’s never heard someone from the community claim that Billy Turpel was Cree or that he lived with a Cree woman.
On March 1, 1938, a few of years after Billy began school, the Winnipeg Tribune reported that “Billy Turpel, eight-year-old son of Dr. W.N. Turpel of Norway House, was rushed to Winnipeg” by airplane because he was “critically ill of diabetes.”
The June 1938 edition of The Beaver picks up the story, saying that after two weeks in hospital, “young Billy Turpel, eldest son of Dr. and Mrs. W.N. Turpel” had “returned home with his mother.”
The Turpels left Norway House in 1939 and never moved back.
After examining the available historical documents, Humphries said there appears to be an “unbroken series of records” indicating that “in that community, Billy is regarded as being the son of William and Eleanor Turpel.”
“When you see all of these records line up, it would be very hard for me as a historian to not conclude that the boy born in Victoria was in fact the child of William and Eleanor Turpel.”
Too much focus on historical records?
Winona Wheeler, an Indigenous studies professor from the University of Saskatchewan, said if Turpel-Lafond wants to claim to be Cree and a treaty Indian, she should be able to explain precisely why she claims her father is Cree.
“If she can’t identify her Indigenous lineage, who’s to say it even exists?” Wheeler asked.
She said Turpel-Lafond owes the public some answers about her ancestry because she has had a high-profile career while representing herself as Indigenous. For example, she has claimed to be the first treaty Indian appointed to the Saskatchewan court.
“It’s not private. It’s public. It’s right out there,” said Wheeler, who’s a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. “People have a right to know who you’re related to. So why wouldn’t you be forthcoming about that?”
“It’s not hard to say, ‘This was my parentage. These are my people. This is where I come from,’” she said. “That’s how we do it in Indian country.”
Drew Lafond, a lawyer from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, argues there is too much focus on biological ancestry and documentable lineage.
He made that case in a May 28 column he wrote in The Globe and Mail entitled “The problem with labelling people ‘Pretendians.’”
“The narrative becomes about engaging genealogists or historical records, all of which misses the point,” he wrote.
“Indigeneity is never about who you claim to be, but is fundamentally about who is claiming you as part of their community,” wrote Lafond, who’s the president of the Indigenous Bar Association. He criticizes those with a “myopic focus on a person’s lineage or ancestry… without a deeper understanding of the rich and diverse relationships that Indigenous nations have.”
Status Indian list 'accord(s) with our oral history'
Michelle Good, an Indigenous author and lawyer from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, agrees that community connection is important.
She said in an ideal world, someone claiming Indigeneity would be able to point to both “biological and social ancestry.”
“But really, when it comes down to it, if you can demonstrate biological [ancestry], then you’ve pretty much demonstrated you belong,” said Good.
She said this becomes apparent when considering the many Indigenous people who were disconnected from their communities through interventions like the Sixties Scoop. She said if a biologically Indigenous person lacks community connection, that doesn’t mean they’re not Indigenous.
Conversely, she said community connection does not turn non-Indigenous people into Indigenous people. She pointed out that many bands across Canada adopt non-Indigenous people into their communities. Those adoptees “are welcomed, treasured, encouraged and supported and in many cases have done tremendous work on behalf of the community,” she said. “However, it does not make them Indigenous.”
In his newspaper column, Lafond also criticized the fact that many Indigenous communities rely on the definition of “status Indian” as spelled out in Canada’s Indian Act, which he regards as a “colonial construct” imposed on Indigenous communities.
Under that definition, someone can only claim to be a status Indian if they have a biological parent who is on the federal government’s status Indian registry. (One exception: Before 1985, non-Indian women who married an Indian man gained Indian status.)
Tribal Chief Mark Arcand, also a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, acknowledges that some First Nations people are offended by this reliance on status cards, because the status system has been imposed by the colonial federal government.
But he said it serves a useful purpose as proof of Indigenous ancestry and “it verifies where people are tied to a First Nation.”
“It shows your roots.”
Good adds that, while problematic, the status registry is the best available written record of who is biologically Indian. She said the status list was based on the known members of the communities in the late 1800s when the treaties were signed and therefore “those lists accord with our oral history.”
The names of those who took part in the treaty were written down on a “pay sheet.” This record-keeping was necessary as the treaties included an annual payment to everyone on the list.
According to Winona Wheeler, “those ancestors of ours who were at treaty and whose chief agreed and they took treaty, that first treaty annuity pay sheet is the first membership list of the band.”
“And [that] is the foundation for the first status Indian list.”
Good said the status list and oral history “mutually confirm” who is a biological Indian, though she acknowledges the status list is far from perfect.
“I’m not saying that it’s equal to our oral history, but that it’s just an objective list that augments our oral history,” she said.
Turpel-Lafond says she’s a treaty Indian
Turpel-Lafond has for decades publicly said she is a treaty Indian. For example, when CBC’s Pamela Wallin asked her about her Indigenous status in a nationally televised interview in 1999, Turpel-Lafond said, “I’m a treaty Indian.”
Wheeler said someone claiming to be a treaty Indian should be able to point to one of their relatives on the treaty lists, which she said can be found online.
“I have the original treaty annuity pay sheet for Norway House,” Wheeler said. “No Turpels.”
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, treaty Indians “are status Indians who belong to a First Nation or band that signed any treaty with the Crown.” In other words, in claiming to be a treaty Indian, Turpel-Lafond was claiming to be on the federal government’s registry of status Indians.
According to a 1991 article in Carleton University’s weekly student newspaper, The Charlatan, Turpel-Lafond said her dad was a status Indian.
The article, on the constitution and Indigenous people, says her father had been a member of the Norway House Cree Nation and a status Indian. It noted that in the 1950s, Turpel-Lafond’s dad “sold his status so he could buy a pickup truck and start a business.”
Under the rules of the Indian Act at the time, the federal government would offer cash payments to Indians who agreed to give up their status and the benefits that came with it. In an email, CBC asked Turpel-Lafond how her father could have had status, given that his parents appeared to be of European and American descent. She didn’t reply.
CBC discovered a simple way to verify whether or not Turpel-Lafond’s father had given up Indian status. The federal government has created a paper trail that can be searched. When someone gave up their Indian status, that fact was recorded in a public federal document called an Order-in-Council.
A website called Orderincouncillists.com, recommended by Library and Archives Canada, has digitized those records from 1878 to 1970. There is no one on the list with the last name Turpel.
This is actually the first time I’ve been sort of aware that [Turpel-Lafond] has some connection to Norway House. I know that we don’t have any Turpels in our membership list.
The Charlatan story went on to say that because of the “patriarchal provisions of the Indian Act,” when Turpel-Lafond’s father gave up his status, that meant she wouldn’t be a status Indian, either.
The article indicates Turpel-Lafond tried to get that status back, saying she “recently found herself in the humiliating position of asking the government to reinstate her — to put her name on a list she is fundamentally opposed to.”
In direct reference to this situation, the article quoted her as saying, “the idea that you can have one definition — namely an Indian — for all these different cultural and historical groups is offensive.”
According to Poitras, the process of regaining status is intricate and involves a long paper trail. The applicant would have to provide documents demonstrating their relative was originally a status Indian and additional documentation showing they had given that status up.
“So this is a verifiable thing,” she said. “Or not.”
CBC asked Turpel-Lafond if she would provide any of that documentation, but she declined.
CBC phoned the Norway House Cree Nation band office to ask if anyone with the last name Turpel had ever been a member of the band. The membership clerk searched the database, which she said includes all members, living, dead or transferred to another band, dating back to 1970. The clerk said there was no Turpel on the list.
CBC also spoke with Ron Evans, a former chief of Norway House who says he was raised on the reserve. First elected in 1980, he served a total of 24 years as either chief or band councillor.
“This is actually the first time I’ve been sort of aware that [Turpel-Lafond] has some connection to Norway House,” Evans said. “I know that we don’t have any Turpels in our membership list.
“There’s lots of red flags going up, that’s for sure,” he said.
Turpel-Lafond says she 'transferred' membership to Muskeg Lake
In the mid-1990s, Turpel-Lafond married George Lafond, a Cree man from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. She left her position as a law professor in Halifax and moved to Saskatchewan, becoming legal counsel for the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
In a 1999 interview, the CBC’s Pamela Wallin asked her about this move to Saskatchewan.
Turpel-Lafond stated “my roots in the First Nations community are in Manitoba,” but she studied and taught law outside the Prairies for a number of years. Eventually, she felt “very drawn back to the Prairies,” so she moved to Saskatchewan and became a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. In describing the process to Wallin, she said she “transferred” to Muskeg Lake.
While testifying at the MMIWG inquiry in 2018, Turpel-Lafond told a similar story. She said she originally comes “from Norway House on my father’s side.” But she said later in life, she married George Lafond “from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and my membership transferred there.”
Winona Wheeler said when she hears that sort of language, she assumes it means a formal transfer of membership from one band to another.
“That’s common, everyday language,” said Wheeler. “If you transfer from one band to another, it supposes that… you were a member of a band and then transferred to another band.”
But she wonders where Turpel-Lafond transferred her membership from, given that Norway House has said she was never on the membership rolls there.
Poitras told CBC that membership transfers are quite common “and there’d be a paper trail for that.”
CBC asked Turpel-Lafond for any documentation related to her membership transfer to Muskeg Lake, but she refused to provide any.
Turpel-Lafond not on Muskeg Lake voters list
At Turpel-Lafond’s recommendation, CBC reached out to the chief of Muskeg Lake, Kelly Wolfe, to ask questions about her relationship to the band. She provided CBC with his cell phone number and Wolfe was expecting the call.
In the phone interview, he said Turpel-Lafond is a “registered member” of the band and “a part of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation family.”
According to the band’s membership act, the community has both status Indian and non-Indian members. The act says if a non-Indian has been adopted by a member of the band, it is possible for that person to become a member themselves through “custom adoption.”
In a written statement to CBC about her relationship with Muskeg Lake, Turpel-Lafond seemed to hint at such a process.
“I became part of MLCN in the Cree custom not because of my [marriage], but because my late mother-in-law, the Cree matriarch and former chief, Alpha Lafond, directed so,” she wrote.
They can say anybody they want is a member. That’s their autonomy. That does not make [the adopted member] a treaty or status Indian.
Poitras, who studied custom adoption as part of her academic work, said many bands like Muskeg Lake have the authority to confer membership on anyone.
“They can say anybody they want is a member. That’s their autonomy. That does not make [the adopted member] a treaty or status Indian,” she said.
On Muskeg Lake’s website, it has posted “an official voters list of all eligible electors,” from the 2021 band election. According to the band’s elections act, an elector is defined as “any member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation” who is 18 years old or older. The names of Turpel-Lafond’s husband and children are on the list. But her name is not.
CBC asked Chief Wolfe how Turpel-Lafond could be a “registered member” of the band and yet not appear on the voters list.
He replied by email: “Muskeg Lake Cree Nation Indian Act election membership lists are not a complete list of our members and we do not discuss the details with media. The information on lists changes every month.”
Poitras says she would be surprised if any band member was left off a voters list. “I can’t conceive of a situation where a member would be left off the voting list unless they weren’t a citizen. The only reason for that, that I can imagine, is human error — they forgot to put [the person’s name] on the list.”
Muskeg Lake chief won't say if Turpel-Lafond is status Indian
Mark Arcand, the Saskatoon Tribal Council chief who helped draft the new U of S policy that requires a status card to prove First Nations ancestry, was concerned when he learned that CBC was asking about Turpel-Lafond’s claim to being a status Indian.
Arcand and Turpel-Lafond are both from Muskeg Lake.
“I support her and I’ll challenge anybody that questions that, because I’m not sure why we’re trying to dig up dirt on a woman that has been front and centre on First Nations issues and really making a difference in First Nations people’s lives,” he told CBC.
CBC asked Arcand if he knows if Turpel-Lafond is a status Indian.
“I don’t know if she is. At the end of the day, if somebody is claiming they’re treaty, then that is their business,” he said. “If the community is happy, why can’t everybody else be happy?”
He added that if CBC really wanted to know if Turpel-Lafond is a status Indian, the reporter should ask the chief of Muskeg Lake.
CBC did in fact put that question to Chief Kelly Wolfe earlier this year.
“We consider Mary Ellen to have full status,” Wolfe replied.
CBC asked the chief if by saying “full status,” he meant Turpel-Lafond was a status Indian. As chief, he would have access to the federal government’s list of status Indians on his reserve.
After 18 seconds of silence, he replied, “I would have to follow up on that. You know, I don’t have access to our registry right now.” He promised to get back to CBC within 24 hours, but he never called back or responded to subsequent messages.
LISTEN | CBC reporter asks Chief Kelly Wolfe about Turpel-Lafond’s status:
Turpel-Lafond hired through 'affirmative action', says book
Turpel-Lafond told CBC her career success is not related to her claim to Indigenous ancestry.
“I have competed for every job alongside all other candidates,” she wrote. “Although I have often worked in the fields of Indigenous justice and child welfare, I have never been awarded a position on an affirmative-action basis.” Affirmative action is the practice of prioritizing the hiring of a specific demographic group that has historically faced discrimination.
This is a point that Turpel-Lafond has been making for years. A 1995 profile of her career in the Ottawa Citizen said she “is proud that she did not get ahead through affirmative-action programs for Natives.”
However, CBC has found documentation that appears to show that early in her career, Turpel-Lafond was targeted for hire at Dalhousie University in part because of her Indigenous ancestry.
In a 1990 interview published in the book Dalhousie Law School — An Oral History, then-professor Faye Woodman noted that in the 1980s, the law school began an aggressive and successful affirmative-action campaign to hire female professors. That success prompted Woodman to exclaim “the thing that impresses me most about the law school is the program of affirmative action.”
However, she noted, “for Aboriginal people and Black people, it is a dismal situation, right across Canada.” Woodman said this prompted the university to target “two Aboriginal women” for hire: Patricia Monture and Mary Ellen Turpel.
“We worked very hard as an appointments committee to encourage them to come,” Woodman recalled. “We coaxed them and tried to persuade them in every way that we could think.”
Turpel-Lafond started work as a law professor at Dalhousie on July 1, 1989.
Turpel-Lafond's resumé claims Harvard degree before she earned it
It was around that time that claims were made in print that she had earned an S.J.D. from Harvard. (An S.J.D., or doctorate of juridical science, is essentially equivalent to a PhD.)
For example, in 1991, Turpel-Lafond was listed as a consultant on a report commissioned by the federal government about Indigenous people and criminal justice. Her listing in that report said she had earned an S.J.D.
A 1995 advertisement in the University of Toronto Bulletin for Turpel-Lafond’s upcoming on-campus lecture on Indigenous issues also said she had been awarded an S.J.D., as did multiple newspaper stories during this period.
Turpel-Lafond’s 2018 UBC CV, which she personally submitted as evidence to the MMIWG inquiry, says she was awarded an S.J.D. in 1990.
However, Turpel-Lafond wasn’t awarded the S.J.D. until June 1997, long after she began claiming to have it. After CBC presented Turpel-Lafond with this information, she acknowledged CBC was correct.
In an email, she said that while she was awarded her degree in 1997, she had completed the work before that year, though she didn’t specify when. “I finished my coursework and dissertation prior, but was awarded the degree in 1997 after I met some final administrative requirements, specifically paying education fees.”
Turpel-Lafond noted that if there are errors in the way her academic accomplishments have been listed, that would likely not be her doing. She said she usually leaves the handling of those sorts of details to administrative assistants.
“I do not read or follow public or online reporting in detail and correct it in every instance, as even if one does do this, there is often no published correction,” she wrote. “I believe there could be inaccuracies and errors in dates or names in different contexts.”
She asked CBC to pass on any errors it found online so she could correct them, noting, “I suspect this will take a bit of time to do but would be a task to undertake in retirement.”
Sarah Eaton, a University of Calgary professor who specializes in academic integrity, said it’s never appropriate to claim credentials you haven’t yet been awarded.
“I would say it’s highly irregular for somebody to put letters after their name for a credential they haven’t earned. That is highly irregular and unethical,” she said. “The ethics behind this are, you claim the credentials when you have earned them and you only claim the credentials that you have legitimately earned. That’s sort of basic academic integrity 101.”
Turpel-Lafond's resumé claims Cambridge degree she didn't earn
Turpel-Lafond’s 2018 CV also claims that she received a master’s of international law (LL.M.) from Cambridge University in 1988. Multiple online profiles repeat this claim.
However, CBC has discovered that this claim is incorrect. Turpel-Lafond did not in fact earn a master’s degree or an LL.M. from Cambridge.
After searching through the Cambridge archives, CBC discovered that in April 1989, Cambridge awarded her a “Diploma in International Law.”
CBC asked Turpel-Lafond why she has claimed for years to have a master’s of international law or an LL.M. when in fact she had received a diploma.
“I have a diploma in international law from Cambridge University, a program equivalent to a master’s degree in law,” she replied.
You don’t say it’s a master’s unless that’s what’s on the parchment. I would think that somebody who taught in higher education would know that.
CBC emailed Cambridge to ask if the diploma and master’s programs are in fact “equivalent.”
In an email, an official from the Cambridge admissions office said, “the master’s of international law and LLM are different degrees to the diploma in international law.”
Eaton said this is also problematic. “You don’t say it’s a master’s unless that’s what’s on the parchment. I would think that somebody who taught in higher education would know that.”
Turpel-Lafond said that for decades her academic credentials have received rigorous scrutiny.
“My educational and professional qualifications have been thoroughly evaluated and verified multiple times at the highest levels of our nation,” she wrote, pointing to the fact that she was scrutinized for university positions, her role as a judge and as an officer of the B.C. Legislature. “At each stage for every position, detailed private information was shared and appropriately vetted.”
Eaton says based on her research, many Canadian universities are shockingly lax and trusting when it comes to checking credentials.
“If somebody applies for a job as a professor and they say they have a doctorate, we trust them,” Eaton said, though she acknowledges there are exceptions. “Compared with other countries, we are so naive here, it’s embarrassing.”
Turpel-Lafond applied for position claiming not-yet-awarded Harvard degree: source
CBC found evidence that in at least one case, a Saskatchewan university did check.
According to a source whose identity CBC has agreed to keep confidential because they’re not authorized to speak to the media, Turpel-Lafond was considered for a job at the University of Saskatchewan law school in the mid-‘90s.
“Mary Ellen applied for a limited-term position within the college of law, not a tenure-track position,” said the source. As part of the hiring process, the faculty met to consider the candidates and their qualifications.
“At the meeting, there was a question about whether or not she actually had the S.J.D. that she said she had in her application, in her CV,” the source said. “So the group said, ‘Well, let’s find out.’ So one member got up and called Harvard Law School.”
It didn’t take long. Ten minutes later, the faculty member returned to report that Harvard had not awarded Turpel-Lafond that degree.
In the Indian community that I’m part of, it’s never good to put yourself in front of everybody. You shouldn’t think you’re better. I’m not better. I’m different.
“So it was the end of the story. I mean, we weren’t going to hire somebody who puts down that they have an S.J.D. and they didn’t have one,” said the source.
The source said perhaps the most shocking thing is that the job Turpel-Lafond was applying for did not require an S.J.D. “It was so unnecessary for her to do that.”
While Turpel-Lafond declined an interview for this story, she did speak with a reporter for a profile back in March 1998 at a pivotal moment in her career.
As she was being appointed to the bench in Saskatchewan, Turpel-Lafond’s academic qualifications and claims to Indigenous identity were very much centre stage. But the reporter for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix noted that “just a few days before being named the province’s first Indian judge, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond suddenly [has become] anxious to squelch the notion she is some kind of super achiever.”
“Listen, I got the pieces of paper, but I don’t want you to write about it too much,” she told the reporter, referring to her degrees.
“These are just my qualifications. In the Indian community that I’m part of, it’s never good to put yourself in front of everybody. You shouldn’t think you’re better. I’m not better. I’m different.”
Top image: Mike McArthur/CBC | Additional research: CBC Reference Library | Editing: Andre Mayer