EXPLAINER: Will STU revoke Canadian lawyer’s honorary degree?

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, independent investigator, provides an update on her investigation into allegations of racist practices in B.C.'s health-care system on July 9, 2020 (Flickr/Province of British Columbia)

In the wake of a CBC investigation from last fall, universities across Canada are revoking honorary degrees bestowed upon Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, citing her allegedly false claims to Indigenous identity.

Turpel-Lafond is a Canadian lawyer, former judge and former legislative advocate for children’s rights who claims Cree ancestry, but a CBC investigation found that her birth certificate revealed she was of European descent.

Turpel-Lafond claims her heritage is from her father, whom she says was adopted by her non-Indigenous grandparents from a Cree family in Norway House, Manitoba.

Since the discovery, Carleton University, the University of Regina and McGill University revoked Turpel-Lafond’s honorary degrees.

St. Thomas University granted Turpel-Lafond her most recent honorary degree in 2017, citing her work to better serve the needs of young people in the justice system.

After the investigation by CBC, STU said in November it would commit to a review involving the joint board-senate committee on honorary degrees, the endowed chair in native studies and STU’s elder in residence.

Jeffrey Carleton, STU’s associate vice president of communications, said in an email to The Aquinian that, since the initial CBC article, the university’s joint board-senate committee on honorary degrees has reviewed documents related to the matter and consulted with Graydon Nicholas, STU’s endowed chair in native studies, and Miigam’agan, STU’s elder in residence.

The committee will report its findings to the board of governors in May.

“As part of this, it is expected that the committee will reach out to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond to offer her the opportunity to address the matters that have been raised,” wrote Carleton in the email.

Tanner Augustine, co-chair of the STU Students Reconciliation Committee, said that Turpel-Lafond is what some people call a “pretendian.”

“Pretendians,” according to Augustine, are people of European or Caucasian descent who claim Indigenous heritage. 

“Basically, you are pretending to be us to get all the ‘benefits,'” he said, referring to things like getting jobs for Indigenous people without having lived the experiences of an Indigenous person.

Jonah Simon, the recently-elected board of governors representative for the St. Thomas University Students’ Union, said one of his first orders of business would be to propose taking away her honorary degree. 

Simon said that, while he believes Turpel-Lafond may have done good work, he thinks it would be okay if she continued to do her work and did not identify as Indigenous. 

However, he considers it an issue that she used the alleged false identity to propel her work.

“To use that as a way to get honorary degrees, not just from STU but other institutions, takes the legitimacy away from actual Indigenous students and professionals,” he said.