Memorial University president steps aside in latest ‘pretendian’ Indigenous controversy

In the latest alleged “pretentious” incident to hit Canadian science, the president of Newfoundland Memorial University has temporarily resigned after her claims of Mi’kmaw ancestry were publicly questioned.

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Vianne Timmons frequently cited Mi’kmaw ancestry on her resume and official biographies, particularly during her 12-year tenure as President of the University of Regina.

“DR. Timmons is a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation of Nova Scotia,” reads the guide to a 2012 inclusion conference where she was a speaker. When Timmons spoke at the University of Northern British Columbia in 2017, she was identified her as “a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation of Nova Scotia” in an official event post.
Mention is also found in official documents listing Timmons as Saskatchewan’s representative on the Independent Advisory Council on Senate nominations. “She is … a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation,” according to a 2018 informational note provided to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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But the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation is a recently formed group whose indigenous status is not recognized by either the federal government or established Mi’kmaq nations.

Additionally, on March 8, a major feature by CBC’s Atlantic Investigative Unit examined more than 400 years of Timmons family history and found no evidence of an Indigenous ancestor that was “less than 10 times removed.”

Stephen White, an expert on Academic genealogy, told the network that Timmons’ most likely claim to Indigenous heritage stems from her great-great-great-grandmother, Marie Benoit, who herself was only one-sixteenth Mi’kmaq.

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In other words, Timmons’ claim to Indigenous ancestry is no fundamentally different from anyone else with family ties to pre-Confederate Atlantic Canada.

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Just hours before the CBC investigation was released, Timmons issued a statement saying that while she had long claimed Mi’kmaq heritage, she had never claimed to be “indigenous” or to benefit from it .

“I am not Mi’kmaq. I am not indigenous. I didn’t grow up in an indigenous community. Nor was I raised to learn the ways of indigenous culture,” she wrote in a March 7 blog post titled “Indigenous identity is complex.”

Timmons said she learned of her Mi’kmaq ancestry from her father and briefly enlisted in the “unrecognized” Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation at the suggestion of her eldest brother.

“Over time I became uncomfortable with this membership as I wasn’t raised in the community or culture so I discontinued it,” she wrote.

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While Memorial University initially stood by its president, the school announced on March 13 that Timmons would be on paid six-week leave as its “actions” came under closer scrutiny.

“While our initial understanding was that President Timmons is not claiming an Indigenous identity, we have received a great deal of feedback from the community,” they wrote in an official statement.

“We have received important questions about the President’s actions, and we believe we have a responsibility to indigenous peoples and a fiduciary duty as a board to further investigate these issues.”

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Perhaps most notably, Timmons received the 2019 Indspire Award for Education, an honor openly touted as “the highest honor the Indigenous community bestows upon its own people.”

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Timmons’ case is somewhat similar to that of Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former BC judge once rumored to be the first Indigenous Supreme Court justice to run.

Although Turpel-Lafond had frequently claimed Cree identity throughout her legal career, a CBC genealogical survey in October discovered that her family tree consisted entirely of European immigrants.

Just last week, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association became the latest organization to withdraw a previous award from Turpel-Lafond over the revelations, stripping her of the 2020 Reg Robson Award, the group’s top honor.

“DR. Turpel-Lafonds’ actions have taken away opportunities and recognition that indigenous women rightly deserve,” the association wrote in a statement.

In response, Turpel-Lafond wrote an email to The Canadian Press, countering that “trials by the media are widespread, imbalanced and potentially damaging”. She signed the email with an indigenous name, aki-kwe.

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