WEATHER ALERT

Turpel-Lafond in spotlight

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There’s a saying on the Prairies that if you shake your family tree hard enough, an Indigenous ancestor is likely to fall out.

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Opinion

There’s a saying on the Prairies that if you shake your family tree hard enough, an Indigenous ancestor is likely to fall out.

One family tree from this place has almost all of Canada talking about what constitutes Indigenous identity, nationhood, and sovereignty.

CBC published an extensive and thoroughly researched report on the genealogy of former judge and children’s rights advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who for decades has claimed she is Cree from northern Manitoba and a “treaty Indian.”

Reporter Geoff Leo uncovered that Turpel-Lafond’s “Cree ancestry, her treaty Indian status, the community where she grew up and her academic accomplishments are inconsistent with publicly available documents.”

The report shows that her father, William Turpel — who she claims is Cree from Norway House Cree Nation — likely does not have Indigenous ancestry, but is “of Irish, German and American ancestry.”

No one from Norway House Cree Nation claims her. Citizens there remember her father as being the non-Indigenous son of the local non-Indigenous doctor.

Confronted with the evidence, Turpel-Lafond refused to answer questions, saying: “My dad was born during my grandfather’s time at Norway House. I was raised to not embarrass, shame or cause harm to families, and not to interfere. I respect my parents and all members of my family and I will never call anyone out. Growing up, we did not question biological parentage.”

She did however point out that her father was “adopted” by a Cree midwife.

Turpel-Lafond grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont., attended law school in Toronto, and became a law professor at Dalhousie University in 1989. She also attended the University of Cambridge and Harvard University.

Her most notable work was in the 1990s, with Assembly of First Nations national chief Ovide Mercredi, during the Charlottetown Accord debates (she even co-write a book with him).

In 1998, she was named the first “treaty Indian” judge in Saskatchewan, crediting her “First Nations background and Cree background” and how it brought “extra value to my understanding of what I see in the courtroom.”

By this time, Turpel-Lafond had married George Lafond, a Cree man from Muskeg Lake First Nation, and was using the traditional name “Aki-kwe” to refer to herself (Earth woman).

At Muskeg Lake, her mother-in-law, Alpha Lafond, directed the band council to make her a member under the community’s membership rules.

Since the 1980s, any First Nation can apply to the federal government to establish their own membership rules, independent of whether an individual is a status Indian.

Muskeg Lake still claims her as a member.

The CBC report also uncovered that Turpel-Lafond often misrepresented her credentials and attained success because she claimed to be Indigenous.

As a result, Turpel-Lafond has become one of Canada’s primary voices on Indigenous issues. She has numerous honorary degrees, has worked for the B.C. government, and teaches law at UBC. She was frequently mentioned as a possible Supreme Court justice.

At the same time, Indigenous peoples for years asked questions about her family and her claims to be Cree and a “treaty Indian” — eventually directing media to do so, too.

Her cryptic answers or outright refusal to address those questions led to the CBC report. Now, she is being compared with other high-profile public figures who have dubiously claimed Indigenous identity, such as Joseph Boyden, Carrie Bourassa and Michelle Latimer.

Unlike those individuals, Turpel-Lafond’s claims are being defended by major players in the Indigenous world.

In a statement, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation Chief Kelly Wolfe issued a statement affirming her role in “one of our kinship families.”

Echoing this were statements of support from the Saskatoon Tribal Council and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.

Indigenous identity has never been attained through “status” or simple genealogy, but through a living relationship with one or more Indigenous communities.

Simply put: one has to earn one’s way into a nation by presenting gifts and being a good, ethical and responsible relative and community member.

This is called kinship — a system of Indigenous citizenship that has operated in communities and nations for millennia.

It’s not for any non-Cree to decide if Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is Cree, but it appears a great deal of Cree leadership claim her. The question is whether Cree communities agree with their support of her claim.

It’s on the second issue, of kinship, that there is considerable debate to be had.

If anything is clear with the CBC story, it is that Turpel-Lafond has not been very good kin.

While she has done excellent work advocating for Indigenous rights and politics, she has left many behind with questions about her motivations, choices and results.

She may be a leaf that was grown by or fell onto a Cree family tree, who knows?

The fact she seems to have left the tree behind appears to be far more significant.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

History

Updated on Monday, October 17, 2022 12:00 PM CDT: Byline added

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