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Memorial University president Vianne Timmons is stepping back from the role and apologizing for hurt she may have caused as questions have been raised over her claim of Indigenous ancestry.Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

The president of Memorial University of Newfoundland Vianne Timmons apologized and stepped aside temporarily Monday in another postsecondary scandal, following questionable claims of Indigenous ancestry.

Dr. Timmons announced her voluntary, six-week paid leave minutes ahead of a statement released by the university’s board that it will convene an Indigenous-led discussion group to examine Dr. Timmons’s past statements of Mi’kmaq heritage and explore how to proceed.

“While our initial understanding was that President Timmons did not claim Indigenous identity, we have received a lot of feedback from the community,” the university’s board of regents chair Glenn Barnes said in a statement. “We have received important questions about the president’s actions, and we believe we have a responsibility to Indigenous peoples and a fiduciary duty as a board to explore these questions further.”

Calls to address Indigenous identity fraud have resounded across the country in the past few years following a number of people who claimed, with either questionable or no evidence, to be Indigenous.

Dr. Timmons, who grew up in Labrador City, N.L., has said that her family is of Mi’kmaq heritage, something she learned in her 30s from her father when she was doing research on Mi’kmaq literacy in Atlantic Canada.

Recently, she said she is not Mi’kmaq and does not claim an Indigenous identity.

“I sincerely regret any hurt or confusion sharing my story may have caused. That was never my intention and I deeply apologize to those I have impacted,” she said in a statement Monday, adding that sharing her story of discovering her heritage was in the spirit of reconciliation and respect. “While this personal process started many years ago, I recognize these actions may be hurtful or cause harm.”

As the president at University of Regina for eight years starting in 2008, she said she spent considerable time with elders who encouraged her to acknowledge her Mi’kmaq ancestry at every opportunity.

In the past, she has claimed membership in the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation, which is not recognized by the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq or by the federal government. “Over time I became uncomfortable with that membership as I was not raised in the community or culture, so I discontinued it,” she wrote in a statement to Memorial students last week prior to stepping aside.

Dr. Timmons, who took on the role of Memorial University president in 2020, was also the recipient of a 2019 Indspire Award for Education, which honours “an extraordinary group of individuals from diverse Indigenous communities.” Dr. Timmons, who is identified as Mi’kmaq on the Indspire website, accepted the award in 2019 while she was president of the University of Regina.

She was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada in 2017 while she was president of University of Regina.

“Falsely claiming Indigenous identity is categorically wrong and harms Indigenous people,” she wrote in the statement to students. “That is why I make the distinction I do about my heritage. I felt I was always very clear.”

In 2021, University of Saskatchewan professor Carrie Bourassa’s claims to Indigenous ancestry came under scrutiny and she was suspended from her job. She resigned last year.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former judge and inaugural academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, was recently stripped of honorary degrees and a British Columbia Civil Liberties Association Award following controversy surrounding her long-standing claims of Cree ancestry. She was also a tenured professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law until recently.

Gina Adams, an American artist who purported to be Indigenous‚ resigned from Emily Carr University in Vancouver last year after journalist Michelle Cyca, a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, wrote an article in Maclean’s challenging her Indigenous heritage.

A University of Saskatchewan report authored by Métis lawyer Jean Teillet described how Canadians, particularly at universities, have been ignorant about the complexities of Indigenous identity, which has meant there are few checks and balances to detect Indigenous identity fraud.

As a result of recommendations made in the November, 2022, report, the University of Saskatchewan changed its hiring policy. It now verifies Indigenous identity claims with Indigenous communities, rather than relying on self-identification and internal verification. Ms. Teillet has said the findings of her 86-page report are applicable to all institutions across Canada that hire and engage with Indigenous people.

At Memorial University, Mr. Barnes said the board has started connecting with Indigenous leaders in the province and will soon provide an update on the scope, timeline and leadership of the group. During Dr. Timmons’s absence, the board appointed Neil Bose, interim provost and academic vice-president to fill in. Spokesperson Dave Sorensen declined to answer any further questions, saying the university is not commenting at this time.