Memorial University President Steps Aside In Latest ‘pretendian’ Indigenous Controversy

Vianne Timmons has often cited Mi’kmaw ancestry in her CV and official bios, but a CBC probe was unable to find any evidence of an Indigenous ancestor

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In the latest alleged “pretendian” incident to hit Canadian academia, the president of Newfoundland’s Memorial University has temporarily stepped aside after her claims of Mi’kmaw ancestry were publicly questioned.

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Largely during a 12-year period when she served as president of the University of Regina, Vianne Timmons frequently cited Mi’kmaw ancestry in her CV and in official bios.

“Dr. Timmons is a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia,” reads the guide to a 2012 inclusion conference at which she appeared as a speaker. When Timmons spoke at the University of Northern British Columbia in 2017, an official event posting identified her as “a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia.”

The citation can also be found in official documents naming Timmons as a Saskatchewan representative to the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments. “She is … a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation,” reads a 2018 briefing 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 unrecognized either by the federal government or by established Mi’kmaq nations.

What’s more, on March 8 an extensive feature by CBC’s Atlantic Investigative Unit probed more than 400 years of Timmons’ family history and failed to find any evidence of an Indigenous ancestor “less than 10 times removed.”

Stephen White, an expert in Acadian genealogy, told the broadcaster that Timmons’ most likely claim to Indigenous heritage was via her great-great-great grandmother, Marie Benoit, who was herself just one-sixteenth Mi’kmaq.

In other words, Timmons’ claim to Indigenous ancestry is no different than basically anyone else with familial ties to pre-Confederation Atlantic Canada.

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

“I am not Mi’kmaq. I am not Indigenous. I did not 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 entitled “Indigenous identity is complex.”

Timmons said she was told of her Mi’kmaq ancestry through her father, and briefly signed up for the “not federally recognized” Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation on the suggestion of her oldest brother.

“Over time I became uncomfortable with that membership as I was not raised in the community or culture, so I discontinued it,” she wrote.

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While Memorial University initially stood by their president, by March 13 the school announced that Timmons would be placed on a six-week paid leave of absence as her “actions” were subjected to closer scrutiny.

“While our initial understanding was that President Timmons did not claim Indigenous identity, we have received a lot 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 explore these questions further.”

Perhaps most notably, Timmons was the 2019 recipient of a Indspire Award for Education, an award openly touted as “the highest honour 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 B.C. judge who was once rumoured to be a candidate to become the first Indigenous justice of the Supreme Court.

Although Turpel-Lafond had frequently claimed Cree identity throughout her legal career, in October a CBC genealogical probe discovered that her family tree was composed exclusively of European immigrants.

Just last week, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association became the latest organization to strip Turpel-Lafond of a prior accolade over the revelations, rescinding her of its 2020 Reg Robson Award, the group’s highest honour.

“Dr. Turpel-Lafond’s actions have taken away opportunities and recognition which was rightfully owed to Indigenous women,” wrote the Association in a statement.

In response, Turpel-Lafond wrote an email to The Canadian Press countering that “trial by media is rampant, can be unbalanced and cause harm.” She signed the email with an Indigenous name, aki-kwe.

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