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Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was director of UBC’s residential school history centre and a professor in the law school.Handout

The University of British Columbia’s president and provost said they regret that a statement responding to questions about a former professor’s claim to Indigenous identity was interpreted as a sign of support and pledged to assess the university’s approach to Indigenous citizenship in hiring.

The university said last October that Indigenous identity was not a requirement for the post for which it had hired prominent legal advocate Mary-Ellen Turpel Lafond, who was director of UBC’s residential school history centre and a professor in the law school.

A CBC story in October raised serious questions about Dr. Turpel-Lafond’s claim that she is Cree from Norway House, Man.

A statement issued by UBC Tuesday, signed by interim president Deborah Buszard and provost Gage Averill, said the media reported that statement “as constituting support” for Dr. Turpel-Lafond and that UBC’s subsequent silence about the controversy was interpreted as confirmation of that support.

“We deeply regret the impact of this and promise to do more now, and in the future. Let us state clearly that we recognize our engagement with the Indigenous community has not been adequate or sufficient to date, and we will strive hard to improve,” the statement said.

It was factually correct that the post Dr. Turpel-Lafond held did not explicitly require Indigenous identity, the president and provost wrote, but they acknowledged that it would have been “an implicit expectation.”

Dr. Turpel-Lafond retired recently from the university and has said in response to the media attention that she is of Cree, Scottish and English heritage and a member of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. She said she has never been hired on the basis of affirmative action.

Tuesday’s 900-word statement from UBC appears to be an attempt to address disquiet within the university and in Indigenous communities. Although the statement expresses regret and promises to do better, it does not use the word apology, nor does it say sorry.

UBC is one of several Canadian universities that have been grappling with contested claims to Indigenous identity. Last year the University of Saskatchewan devised a new policy for verifying Indigenous identity that relies on evidence of citizenship or membership in Indigenous communities, rather than the old standard of self-identification based on an honour system. Queen’s University has also begun a process to create a new policy.

UBC’s leadership said it has been in discussions with other universities to learn from their experience but that any proposals will have to evolve from discussions with Indigenous peoples in B.C. and should reflect the values of Indigenous colleagues at the university.

An advocacy group called the Indigenous Women’s Collective said on Twitter that it recognized UBC’s leadership had finally broken its silence on the university’s “failure to approach the issue in a responsible and timely manner.”

Tuesday’s letter, which is addressed primarily to the UBC Vancouver campus, commits UBC to further discussion and engagement with Indigenous communities, particularly on the question of how to assess identity claims.

“The possibility that anyone might misrepresent themselves for personal and professional benefit, or that misleading credentials or publications might be submitted for employment, is one that we take extremely seriously,” the statement said.

“Going forward, as we assess our current approaches to hiring and to the role of Indigenous citizenship/status and truthfulness in hiring, we believe it is important to take the time to consider the complex issues and not to make presumptions or predeterminations about where these discussions will take us.”

Vancouver Island University announced Tuesday that Dr. Turpel-Lafond had returned an honorary doctorate after the school informed her it had begun a process to review the award.

The review was prompted by calls from members of its community and the Indigenous Women’s Collective, which asked a number of universities that awarded honorary degrees to Dr. Turpel-Lafond to revisit their decisions.

VIU said in a press release that it condemns Indigenous identity fraud and will create safeguards to verify Indigenous identity claims in future.

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