‘Pretendians’ rob Indigenous people of jobs, opportunities


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I have been watching as people are being exposed or accused of falsely claiming Indigenous ancestry and/or identity.

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I have been watching as people are being exposed or accused of falsely claiming Indigenous ancestry and/or identity.

The term ‘pretendian’ has popped up: it’s a combination of pretend and Indian.

The most notable example recently is that of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former judge, former B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, and former law professor (most recently at UBC Law).

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press Files)

She was also the inaugural academic director of the UBC Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. Turpel-Lafond was an adviser to the Assembly of First Nations grand chief during the Charlottetown Accord constitutional debates in the 1990s.

She claims to be of Cree ancestry and traces her history to Norway House Cree Nation in northern Manitoba.

A CBC investigation uncovered genealogical evidence, historical records and witness accounts indicating that Turpel-Lafond is of European ancestry. The story questioned claims she made about her academic achievements.

Initially, many people and institutions stood by Turpel-Lafond and issued statements of support, including but not limited to, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and the University of B.C. Turpel-Lafond issued a statement on her Twitter, saying “I am of Cree, Scottish & English heritage & hold the name aki-kwe & am an active member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation…”

While Muskeg Cree Nation, her second husband’s band, has claimed her through kinship, there are many questions she has yet to address.

After the CBC’s investigation broke, various Indigenous people expressed their anger and shock at the allegations of deception.

A group of Indigenous women — Indigenous Women’s Collective — a group of mothers, LGBTTQ+, grandmothers, daughters, aunties, artists, academics, lawyers, and activists, issued a statement stating they feel a responsibility to “denounce pretendianism, acknowledge the pain this form of theft has on our people.”

Turpel-Lafond quietly retired from UBC in December, and the university has remained mostly silent, which is most blatant and deafening given the voices of other Indigenous women have been ignored.

Some may ask why it matters if the allegations are true, considering she contributed to the betterment of Indigenous people.

However, if her claims of Cree ancestry are false, she could have done the same work, or at least had the same motivations to do the same work, but as a non-Indigenous person, or an ally.

People who falsely claim Indigenous identity take up jobs, appointments, and even conversations that aren’t meant for them. When they do this, they are silencing the voices of Indigenous people, and taking opportunities away from them.

There are several articles and opinion pieces about this subject. I encourage everyone to read them. The Indigenous Women’s Collective has been doing an incredible job of not letting this issue, specifically the claims against Turpel-Lafond, fade away.

As we move forward with reconciliation, I hope we do not lose sight of the need for truth.


Twitter @ShelleyACook

Shelley Cook

Shelley Cook
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project

Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.

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