On February 24, Interim Principal and Vice-Chancellor Christopher P. Manfredi announced in an email to the McGill community that the McGill University Senate had voted to revoke the honorary degree granted to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond in 2014. The decision to revoke Turpel-Lafond’s Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree, honoris causa, was based on a recommendation of the Honorary Degrees and Convocations Committee (HDCC). An ad hoc subcommittee had been reviewing Turpel-Lafond’s case since November of last year, after a CBC investigation revealed factual errors in some of Turpel-Lafond’s claims about her Cree ancestry, her Treaty Indian status, the community she grew up in, and her academic achievements.
The HDCC subcommittee was advised by Professor Celeste Pedri-Spade, McGill’s Associate Provost (Indigenous Initiatives). According to Manfredi’s email, it “carried out its work diligently” and “in accordance with procedural fairness.” In line with McGill’s role “as an institution of higher learning committed to academic integrity,” the subcommittee focused its review on questions concerning Turpel-Lafond’s curriculum vitae, but it did not ignore questions raised with respect to her Treaty Indian status. Subcommittee members communicated with Turpel-Lafond throughout the review process, and they examined documentation that Turpel-Lafond provided them. In the end, however, the subcommittee “found evidence calling into question the validity of information about academic credentials and accomplishments appearing on Ms. Turpel-Lafond’s curriculum vitae.” It noted also that her claims to Treaty Indian status were “the subject of important questions.”
Concluding his email, Manfredi reminded the McGill community that honorary degrees are the university’s “highest honours, reserved for individuals whose achievements and values inspire our community.” He also reminded recipients of the university’s “duty to ensure accountability in relation to claims of Indigenous citizenship,” promising that McGill – under the leadership of Indigenous students and faculty and “with guidance from Indigenous community-based advisors” – would develop a policy on Indigenous citizenship claims.
The Indigenous Women’s Collective (IWC) formed after the CBC investigation was published last year and has been calling on universities and other institutions to rescind honours bestowed upon Turpel-Lafond ever since. This includes 11 Canadian universities that have awarded Turpel-Lafond honorary degrees as well as the Order of Canada, which granted Turpel-Lafond the country’s second-highest civilian honour in 2021. The IWC was pleased by the same-day decisions of McGill and Carleton University to strip Turpel-Lafond of her honorary degrees. In a press release dated February 27, the collective wrote: “We applaud this action and we believe this helps to eradicate the devastating silence that surrounds the colonial theft of our Indigenous identities.” The IWC added that Turpel-Lafond “is well versed in the history and manifestations of colonial harm” and that she should “begin the healing process with Indigenous people by apologizing for her conduct.”
Turpel-Lafond has yet to make a public apology. On March 9, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association voted to revoke the Reg Robson Award it granted to her in 2020 because its board members believed she had falsified her claims to Indigenous identity. Responding to a request for comment, Turpel-Lafond told The Canadian Press that she was surprised by the association’s decision to rescind the award without “basic fairness” – they did not, she said, give her a chance to defend herself – but that she was satisfied with her “past work, identity and self-worth.” Turpel-Lafond went on to express that she has “no emotional attachment to titles, honours or accolades.” In fact, she said, it feels “liberating” to be freed of them because it permits her to “focus on what really matters” in her life.
McGill, Carleton, and the University of Regina are the only schools that have stripped Turpel-Lafond of honorary degrees thus far. In a February 13 press release, the University of Regina stated that Turpel-Lafond’s accomplishments “are outweighed by the harm inflicted upon Indigenous academics, peoples and communities when non-Indigenous people misrepresent their Indigenous ancestry.”
Not everyone agrees. As reported in the Daily last fall, many individuals and groups have spoken out against the investigations into Turpel-Lafond’s Indigenous identity and academic record. The University of British Columbia, for one, issued a statement to The Globe and Mail in October praising Turpel-Lafond’s accomplishments as the founding director of the university’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. UBC has since apologized for its handling of the Turpel-Lafond allegations, saying its response “harmed its Indigenous community and Indigenous partners outside the university.” Some Indigenous groups have come to Turpel-Lafond’s defence as well. In October 2022, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said Turpel-Lafond has been a “fierce, ethical and groundbreaking advocate for Indigenous peoples for decades” and that genealogy is not always the best indicator of Indigenous identity. Chief Kelly Wolfe of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, meanwhile, has confirmed that Turpel-Lafond is a member of their community “and has been for 30 years.”
Earlier this year, Turpel-Lafond voluntarily relinquished degrees from Vancouver Island University and Royal Roads University upon learning that they planned to conduct reviews. On March 8, Brock University also accepted a return from Turpel-Lafond. The IWC has condemned the decisions of these universities to accept Turpel-Lafond’s returns, arguing that they “did not uphold academic integrity by making Ms. Turpel-Lafond accountable for her actions.” Tweeting on February 7, the IWC also wrote that Turpel-Lafond “must be investigated for Indigenous identity fraud and held accountable if her claims are unfounded. Stealing from Indigenous people should carry consequences.”