Academic integrity expert says Turpel-Lafond story is a ‘watershed moment for Canadian higher education’
CBC Investigates: Michelle Good chokes up a little when she talks about the honorary doctorate she received from Simon Fraser University (SFU) in October. The retired Cree lawyer and author of the bestselling book Five Little Indians received the honour for her advocacy on behalf of residential school survivors.
But Good said that if SFU, located in Burnaby, B.C., does not revoke the honorary degree it granted Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, then Good will be forced to make a painful decision. “I have decided in my heart of hearts that if the decision is to allow her to keep that doctorate, I will return mine,” Good told CBC. “[If] they allow her to continue to carry that honour then it’s not an honour. So I don’t want it.”
The reason, she said, is that recent CBC stories have revealed that Turpel-Lafond has acted dishonourably by not telling the truth about her ancestry and her accomplishments.
When SFU granted Turpel-Lafond an honorary doctorate in 2016, its citation noted that she was a “scholar of Aboriginal descent” who became the “first person of treaty Indian status to be named to the bench in Saskatchewan.” The citation also said she has “a master’s degree in international law from the University of Cambridge.”
CBC’s investigation found no evidence that these claims are true. Genealogical documentation shows all of Turpel-Lafond’s ancestors are of European descent. In addition, all of the documentation and oral testimony uncovered by CBC provide no indication that she is a treaty Indian.
Finally, Turpel-Lafond has admitted she doesn’t have a master’s degree from Cambridge. Instead, she received a diploma.
- Scholar and former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says she’s Cree, but her claims don’t appear to match the historical record
- Birth certificate contradicts Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s account of her father’s parentage and ancestry
Good said she wrote to SFU weeks ago, formally requesting the university revoke Turpel-Lafond’s honorary degree.
She said she told them “this woman had deceived the legal profession, the judicial system, multiple universities, governments and primarily indigenous organizations and peoples. And that that person should not be honoured given that kind of conduct.”
She said the university’s chancellor and its president wrote what she describes as a “very positive letter.” In it, they indicated “they didn’t have a policy for how to go about revoking an honorary degree. And that they were going to develop a policy and then apply it to that case,” she said.
Turpel-Lafond has received honorary doctorates from 11 Canadian universities. A group calling itself the Indigenous Women’s Collective has called on those institutions to revoke those degrees.
On Wednesday, Indigenous Senator Mary Jane McCallum spoke in solidarity with that group, highlighting the harm she says is caused by Indigenous identity fraudsters or “pretendians” (pretend Indians). She called on her colleagues to join in a national conversation.
“If the Senate is committed to reconciliation, we must end the deafening silence surrounding pretendianism,” she said. “We must denounce and renounce such shameful conduct and acknowledge the harm it causes to Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women and children.”
Marion Buller also considers returning her honorary doctorate
SFU is one of the universities reviewing its honorary doctorate for Turpel-Lafond. Michael McDonald, a member of SFU’s board of governors, weighed in on the topic recently on the social media site LinkedIn.
“As an Indigenous male professional, I am also very troubled and in fact offended by the degree and manner in which Ms. Turpel-Lafond has misrepresented herself as having Indigenous ancestry in the past,” wrote McDonald, a partner in a Vancouver-based law firm.
Turpel-Lafond has claimed to have been born and raised in Norway House, Man., home to a federally recognized First Nation. She has also said her childhood there was marked by poverty, alcoholism and abuse. However, all the evidence CBC has uncovered indicates she wasn’t from Norway House, and was in fact born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ont.
The SFU citation referenced this troubled childhood, noting that as a judge Turpel-Lafond often encountered “young offenders whose upbringing mirrored her own, she encouraged the justice system to recognize the cycle of poverty, neglect, and abuse Aboriginal youth often suffer.”
McDonald said Turpel-Lafond’s claims about Norway House are especially troubling to him, because it’s where his mother grew up and remains a member. He said he and his family “have not heard of Ms. Turpel-Lafond as being connected there.”
“To appropriate not only the identity but also the pain and suffering of Indigenous Peoples possibly for personal gain and accolades is simply wrong and I find it offensive,” he wrote. “For institutions to bestow honours as a direct result of those misrepresentations of personal harm piles it on even more.”
In response to McDonald’s post, yet another high profile Indigenous scholar weighed into the discussion.
Marion Buller, a former B.C. judge who was recently appointed chancellor of the University of Victoria, commented on McDonald’s LinkedIn post, noting both she and Turpel-Lafond received honorary doctorates from Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in British Columbia.
Turpel-Lafond received hers in 2009, while Buller was honoured in 2021.
“If TRU does not rescind [Turpel-Lafond’s] degree, I will have to consider returning mine,” wrote Buller, who was the chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
CBC asked Buller for an interview, but she declined.
“I will be very pleased to speak with you once we know TRU’s decision,” said Buller, who in 1994 was the first First Nations woman to be appointed judge in B.C.
All 11 universities that have granted honorary degrees to Turpel-Lafond have publicly committed to review the matter in some form.
This week, CBC asked for an update. Every university indicated they’re continuing to evaluate the situation.
However, one response stood out due to its specificity.
The University of Regina said it is in the “final stages” of evaluating the status of Turpel-Lafond’s honorary degree and that governance bodies would meet about it in the new year.
“We expect to have a decision by late February,” a spokesperson said by email.
‘A watershed moment’ for Canadian academia
Sarah Eaton, one of few scholars in Canada who study academic integrity, said the revelations coming out of the Turpel-Lafond story have created “a watershed moment for Canadian higher education.”
She said that for too long, academics in this country have scoffed at the idea that academic dishonesty could be a problem here.
“Colleagues will often say, ‘Oh, this is hyperbole. This is sensationalist. Stuff like this doesn’t happen in Canada,'” Eaton said. She said CBC’s stories about Turpel-Lafond have “given us pretty compelling evidence that it does.”
Over the past few weeks, CBC has revealed the following about Turpel-Lafond’s CV:
- She claimed to have earned a master’s of international law from Cambridge University. In fact she had earned a diploma.
- She claimed to have earned a doctor of juridical science degree from Harvard University in 1990. In fact she wasn’t awarded the degree until 1997.
- She claimed to have received an honorary doctorate from First Nations University. FNUniv says it has never awarded an honorary doctorate to anyone.
- She claimed to have written a book about Indigenous customary adoption. That book doesn’t exist.
While Turpel-Lafond has declined comment for this story, in the past she has said that if there are errors in the way her accomplishments have been listed that would likely not be of her doing. She said she usually leaves the handling of those sorts of details to administrative assistants.
Eaton said generally speaking, in Canadian academia there are “blinding levels of trust that would preclude a deep interrogation of the facts of the CV.”
She said that’s especially the case with celebrity academics.
“When high-profile experts are recruited for academic roles, there are extraordinary levels of trust that they’ve done the work that they said they’ve done, that they have the expertise that they say they have, that their CVs are true and accurate,” she said.
In 2018, Turpel-Lafond was appointed as the head of UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) and as a professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law.
She resigned from IRSHDC earlier this year but, remains a professor at UBC. According to university records, her salary last year was almost $300k.
CBC asked the university for its reaction to the various errors uncovered in Turpel-Lafond’s CV.
A spokesperson replied “privacy law prevents the university from discussing HR matters related to any employee.”
‘Mary Ellen did not supervise my master’s’: Aylward
CBC has uncovered additional problems with Turpel-Lafond’s CV.
In it, she claimed to have supervised Carol Aylward’s LLM (master of laws) studies at Dalhousie University in the early 1990s.
This came as news to Aylward when CBC reached her by phone a few days ago. “Mary Ellen did not supervise my master’s,” Aylward said. “And I don’t know why she would put that [claim in her CV]. It makes no sense.”
Aylward, who is now retired, served for years as the director of the Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative at Dalhousie University’s law school. She said that in the early 1990s, she and Turpel-Lafond were both assistant professors at Dalhousie.
Aylward, author of Canadian Critical Race Theory; Racism and the Law, said Turpel-Lafond’s claim to have been her supervisor baffles her. Aylward said she did a course-work LLM at Dalhousie and her supervisor was Jennifer Bankler.
“It seems irrational to me because there would be no reason that I could conceive of where she would have to say that I was one of her students or that she supervised my LLM when in fact she didn’t,” Aylward said. “It’s very unusual for an academic to do that because it’s so easily tracked.”
It appears Turpel-Lafond made similar incorrect claims about a student in Saskatchewan.
Turpel-Lafond’s CV says she supervised University of Saskatchewan (U of S) student Rae Mitten for her 2006 master’s of education.
But a search of convocation records shows that Mitten didn’t earn a master’s of education at the U of S in 2006. In fact, a search of U of S convocation programs from 2000 to 2012 shows Mitten did not receive a master’s of education during that time. In addition, CBC was unable to locate a thesis connected to a master’s of education for Mitten.
Turpel-Lafond also claims that she supervised Mitten for her 2011 PhD in interdisciplinary studies from the U of S. In 2011, Turpel-Lafond did not work for the U of S. From 2006 until 2016 she served as British Columbia’s representative for children and youth, a role to which she was appointed by the B.C. legislature.
The acknowledgements section of Mitten’s thesis contradicts Turpel-Lafond’s claim that she was the supervisor. It says Mitten’s advisor was Linda Wason-Ellam, adding that Turpel-Lafond served on Mitten’s five-person advisory committee.
A U of S spokesperson said privacy considerations limited what the university can say.
However, in an email an official confirmed that Turpel-Lafond had served as an advisory committee member for Mitten. The email added that while this role pertains to “supervision provided by a committee, we cannot confirm that she was acting in the specific [role] claimed on her CV for the University of Saskatchewan.”
Academic integrity expert Sarah Eaton said that in academia, everyone knows that there is a huge difference between being a supervisor (otherwise known as an advisor) and an advisory committee member.
“If I were a committee member, I would never call myself the student’s supervisor,” said Eaton. “That would be an insult to the actual supervisor and it would also be a misrepresentation of my contribution to the student’s education.”
She said the supervisor/advisor has the primary responsibility for guiding a graduate student’s education. “You’re working one-on-one with the student, you’re guiding them, you’re meeting with them on a regular basis. It’s a pretty intensive role,” she said, noting that it can involve hundreds or even thousands of hours.
She said that, by contrast, advisory committee members play a much more peripheral and “less hands-on” role consisting of a few hours of work.
CBC reached out to Turpel-Lafond and Rae Mitten asking for comment. Mitten declined and Turpel-Lafond didn’t respond.