Cindy Blackstock, an internationally recognized First Nations researcher and child welfare expert, says the birth certificate of William Turpel, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s father, was the last straw.
Earlier this week The CBC revealed that an official government birth certificate showed that William Turpel was the natural-born child of British parents, not an adopted Cree boy of undetermined descent from Norway House, Man., as Turpel-Lafond has argued.
“Seeing that birth certificate for me was pretty clear and compelling evidence that in this case there is no Indigenous identity per se,” said Blackstock, a professor of social work at McGill University, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and one of the most prominent indigenous scholars to comment on Turpel-Lafond’s identity.
For decades, Turpel-Lafond, a prominent scholar and former judge, has claimed to be Cree because her father William Turpel was Cree. She claims that her non-native grandparents, Dr. William Nicholson Turpel and Eleanor Rhoda Turpel, adopted her father from a Cree family at Norway House. She has not provided any proof of this and says the adoption was “informal”.
But last month The CBC published an investigation that provided evidence that raised doubts about this claim. For example, the CBC found a newspaper birth announcement and a baptism record, both of which said William Turpel was born to Dr. and mrs. Turpel in 1929 at a hospital in Victoria, BC.
Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, said she found that information concerning, but that she was reserving judgment out of caution until she saw the official birth certificate.
“There is no indication that this was a custom adoption of a Cree child,” Blackstock said of Turpel-Lafond’s claim that her father was adopted. “This was the birth of a non-native child and that is sacred and that should be respected, but it does not match the claims of identity that Mary Ellen made.”
Community membership ‘doesn’t make you a native’
Blackstock noted that Turpel-Lafond’s public defenders have not addressed the document trail, instead pointing to the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan accepting Turpel-Lafond. She was welcomed into the community in the mid-1990s when she married George Lafond, a Cree man with deep roots in the First Nation.
For example, shortly after CBC’s story was published, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs issued a statement saying, “We understand that Chief Kelly Wolfe of the Muskeg Lake First Nation and her extended family all confirm that Dr. Turpel-Lafond is a part of their society under their native laws.”
Blackstock said it is telling that this is the only defense offered to Turpel-Lafond’s ancestry claim.
“The only claim to Native identity comes from being a member of one’s husband’s community, and that doesn’t make you Native,” she said.
No connection to Norges Hus
Furthermore, Blackstock points out that, according to Turpel-Lafond, she is originally from the Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba. In fact, Turpel-Lafond has claimed that is where she was born.
The Norwegian House membership secretary told CBC there is no record of any Turpel being on the membership list.
And former Norway House chief Ron Evans told the CBC he grew up in Norway House and never saw Turpel-Lafond or her family in the community.
Blackstock said she knows Ron Evans and Norway House well. She worked with him to advocate Jordan’s Principle, which was named after Jordan River Anderson of Norway House. This principle states that any service normally available to non-Indigenous children must also be provided to Indigenous children without delay.
“I’ve often heard how proud they are of their nation members, including Jordan River Anderson… great people like Tina Keeper,” she said. “I’ve never heard any conversation about Mary Ellen when I’ve been up there. So that counts a lot, too.”
Blackstock said she has no doubt that Turpel-Lafond’s claim to Native ancestry drove her impressive career. As an example, Blackstock pointed to how Time magazine in 1994 recognized Turpel-Lafond as one of tomorrow’s top 100 global leaders, along with the likes of Bill Gates.
She said Turpel-Lafond’s career achievements at the time had “added credibility to her claims of being an Indigenous person herself.”
“The story was, as an Indigenous person, look at this significant amount of achievement,” Blackstock said.
Blackstock noted that if Turpel-Lafond had indeed grown up in deep dysfunction as an on-reserve Indigenous person, as she had claimed, her career trajectory would certainly be worthy of that kind or recognition because First Nations people have “earned the housing schools and colonialism and all these other kinds of government curveballs that really kept us out of academic spaces for far too long.”
Blackstock noted that Turpel-Lafond is still employed at the University of British Columbia as a law professor. She also pointed out that she has received many honors from universities across the country.
She said if those institutions awarded honors or positions to Turpel-Lafond based in part on her claims of Native ancestry, then those institutions are entitled to ask her for proof.
“If it [ancestry] claims are being used as currency to get you personal benefit or opportunity that you wouldn’t otherwise have had… then the right question to ask is, and we [Indigenous people] must be prepared to answer them.”
Many indigenous peoples have been legally displaced
Blackstock said, in her opinion, one of the biggest harms caused by the proliferation of these cases of “pretend Indians” is the effect it has on genuine indigenous people who have been disconnected from their roots and communities.
“I just really hope that these individuals who are making claims that are false are clearly separated from the individuals who are on a legitimate journey to try to recover what is rightfully theirs,” Blackstock said.
She said in her work with Indigenous youth, she comes across many who were adopted or somehow lost contact with their birth family.
Blackstock said reconnecting and trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together can be very challenging.
“They have been through the foster care experience, they may have been through several [foster care] placements and they’re looking in their child care file and they’re trying to figure out where they belong. Which First Nation did they come from? Who were their parents? What’s their story?”
She said this work is made more difficult by the uncertainty brought about by stories of pretenders with no legitimate claim to Indigenous ancestry.
She noted that disconnected young people have lower self-esteem and are more susceptible to addiction and mental health problems.
“So if you have one of those people in your circle, really encourage them to continue that journey,” Blackstock said.