Earlier this week, CBC revealed that an official government birth certificate showed William Turpel was the child born to British parents, not a Cree boy adopted to undetermined parents from Norway House, Man., as Turpel-Lafond has claimed.
“Seeing that birth certificate was pretty clear and compelling evidence to me to suggest that in this case, there is no Indigenous identity per se,” said Blackstock, professor of social work at McGill University, director General of the 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, claimed to be Cree because her father, William Turpel, was Cree. She claims that her non-Aboriginal grandparents, Dr. William Nicholson Turpel and Eleanor Rhoda Turpel, adopted her father from a Norway House Cree family. She provided no evidence of this and said the adoption was “informal”.
However, last month CBC published an investigation that provided evidence that raised doubts about this claim. For example, CBC found a newspaper birth announcement and a baptismal record that both stated that William Turpel was born to Dr. and Mrs. Turpel in 1929 at a hospital in Victoria, British Columbia.
Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, said she found the information concerning, but reserved judgment out of caution until she saw the official birth certificate.
“There is no indication that this was a customary adoption of a Cree child,” Blackstock said, regarding Turpel-Lafond’s claim that his father was adopted. “It was the birth of a non-Indigenous child and it’s sacred and it should be respected, but it doesn’t align with the identity claims that Mary Ellen was making.”
Belonging to the community “does not make you an Aboriginal person”
Blackstock noted that Turpel-Lafond’s public defenders did not address the documentary trail, but instead pointed to the fact that the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan accepted 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 the CBC article was published, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs released a statement saying, “We understand that Chief Kelly Wolfe of Muskeg Lake First Nation and his related family all confirm that Dr. Turpel-Lafond is part of their community. under their native laws. »
Blackstock said it was telling that this was the only defense offered for Turpel-Lafond’s ancestry claim.
“The only claim to Indigenous identity comes from being a member of your husband’s community and that doesn’t make you Indigenous,” she said.
No connection with Norway House
Additionally, Blackstock points out that according to Turpel-Lafond, she is from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba. In fact, Turpel-Lafond claimed that’s where she was born.
Norway House’s membership clerk told CBC there was no record of a Turpel being on the membership list.
And former Norway House chief Ron Evans told CBC he grew up in Norway House and never saw Turpel-Lafond or his family in the community.
Blackstock said she knew Ron Evans and Norway House well. She worked with him to advocate for Jordan’s Principle, which is named after Jordan River Anderson of Norway House. This principle states that any service usually available to non-Indigenous children should also be provided to Indigenous children without delay.
“I’ve heard many times how proud they are of their nation’s members, including Jordan River Anderson…amazing people like Tina Keeper,” she said. “I never heard a conversation about Mary Ellen when I was there. So that carries a lot of weight too.”
Blackstock said she has no doubt that Turpel-Lafond’s claim of Indigenous ancestry propelled her impressive career. As an example, Blackstock pointed to how in 1994 Time magazine recognized Turpel-Lafond as one of the Top 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow alongside Bill Gates.
She said that Turpel-Lafond’s professional accomplishments at that time had “added credibility due to her claims of being an Indigenous person herself.”
“The story was, as an Indigenous person, look at this significant amount of accomplishment,” Blackstock said.
Blackstock noted that if Turpel-Lafond had truly grown up deeply dysfunctional as an Indigenous person on a reservation, as she claimed, her career trajectory would certainly be worthy of this genre or recognition, as members of the First Nations have “been served housing in schools and colonialism and all these other kinds of government curveballs that have really kept us out of these 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 honorary degrees from universities across the country.
She said that if these institutions granted honors or positions to Turpel-Lafond in part based on her claim of Indigenous ancestry, then these institutions are justified in asking her for evidence.
“If this [ancestry] the claim is being used as a bargaining chip to provide you with a personal benefit or opportunity that you would not otherwise have had… so these are appropriate questions to ask and we [Indigenous people] be ready to answer them. »
Many Indigenous people were rightfully displaced
Blackstock said that in his view, one of the greatest harms caused by the proliferation of these cases of “Indian pretenders” is the effect it has on the real indigenous peoples who have been disconnected from their roots and their communities.
“I really hope that these people who are making false claims are clearly separated from those who are on a legitimate journey trying to reclaim what is rightfully theirs,” Blackstock said.
She said that in her work with Indigenous youth, she encountered many who had been adopted or had lost touch with their biological families.
Blackstock said it can be very difficult to reconnect and try to figure out how all the pieces fit together.
“They lived the experience of care, they may have lived several [foster care] placements and they look at their child in care records and they try to find out where they belong. What First Nation were they from? Who were their parents? What is their story ?”
She said that work is made more difficult by the uncertainty created by stories of suitors without legitimate claims of Indigenous ancestry.
She noted that disconnected youth have less self-confidence and are more susceptible to substance abuse and mental health issues.
“So if you have one of those people around you, really encourage them to continue on this journey,” Blackstock said.