Canadian leader steps aside over native claims

Memorial University president apologises and takes paid break after questions on strength of her claims of indigenous ancestry

March 15, 2023

The president of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, Vianne Timmons, has agreed to step down temporarily after a media report questioned her claims to indigenous ancestry.

Dr Timmons, a former president of the University of Regina, also offered an apology after last week’s report by CBC News challenging her assertions that her father's great-great-grandmother was Mi’kmaq – a native people of eastern Canada.

She offered the apology in a written statement in which she said that she is “not Mi’kmaq and I do not claim an indigenous identity”, before saying she welcomed “questions about my intentions in identifying my indigenous ancestry and whether I have benefitted from sharing my understanding of my family’s history”.

“I have been reflecting on this feedback from the indigenous community, and I sincerely regret any hurt or confusion sharing my story may have caused,” Dr Timmons added. “That was never my intention and I deeply apologise to those I have impacted.”

The Board of Regents at Memorial University said in a separate statement that it would ask an assembly of indigenous leaders to study the situation and offer guidance on how it should be handled.

“It is only through indigenous-led conversation and dialogue that we will truly gain the knowledge and understanding necessary to inform our perspectives on these matters,” the chairman of the regents, Glenn Barnes, a local architect, said in the announcement.

Dr Timmons will be taking a voluntary, paid six-week leave of absence, and be replaced during that period by Memorial’s interim provost, Neil Bose, the institution’s vice president for research, university officials said.

The case is the latest in a series of such incidents across Canada as the country grapples with its historical and present-day treatment of the native peoples of its national territory.

Other recent examples include Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former provincial judge who left a faculty position at the University of British Columbia; Carrie Bourassa, who resigned from her position as a professor of health at the University of Saskatchewan; and Queen’s University, which promised fundamental change after six faculty members were described as falsely claiming indigenous status.

CBC News said that during its investigation at Memorial University, Dr Timmons said she “has always made a clear distinction that she never claimed Mi’kmaq identity, only ancestry”. She also said that she had not benefited from discussing that ancestry, although CBC News said that her CV and professional biographies described her membership in a Mi’kmaw band.

Dr Timmons was the first female president of the University of Regina, serving from 2008 to 2020. She barely survived an early no-confidence vote by Regina’s University Council, before being credited with dramatically improving the university’s enrolment, after years of decline, by focusing on seeking diversity, including more indigenous students.

She explained her return to her home region of the Canadian Maritimes, to take the leadership post at Memorial University in 2020, as a move to help her elderly mother.

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