Cindy Blackstock, an internationally recognized First Nations scholar and expert on child welfare, says the birth certificate of William Turpel, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s father, was the final straw.
Earlier this week, TBEN revealed that an official government birth certificate showed that William Turpel was the natural child of British parents, not an adopted Cree boy of undetermined parentage from Norway House, Man., as Turpel-Lafond has claimed.
“Seeing that birth certificate to me was pretty clear and compelling evidence suggesting that there is no Indigenous identity per se in this case,” said Blackstock, a professor of social work at McGill University, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and one of the most prominent native 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 in Norway House. She has provided no evidence for this and says the adoption was “informal”.
Last month, however, TBEN published a study that provided evidence that cast doubt on that claim. For example, TBEN found a newspaper birth announcement and a baptismal certificate in which both said William Turpel was born in 1929 at a hospital in Victoria, BC, as the son of Dr. and Mrs. Turpel was born.
Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, said she found that information but, out of caution, she wouldn’t pass judgment until she saw the official birth certificate.
“There is nothing to suggest 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 that doesn’t match the identity claims Mary Ellen made.”
Community membership ‘doesn’t make you native’
Blackstock noted that Turpel-Lafond’s public defenders have not addressed the document trail, instead pointing to the fact that the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan has 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 TBEN’s story was published, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs issued a statement saying, “We understand that Chief Kelly Wolfe of Muskeg Lake First Nation and her kinship family all confirm that Dr. Turpel-Lafond is part of their community under their native laws.”
Significantly, Blackstock said this is the only defense offered for the Turpel-Lafond ancestry claim.
“The only claim to Indigenous identity comes from being a member of her husband’s community and that doesn’t make you Indigenous,” she said.
No Norwegian house connection
Additionally, Blackstock points out that, according to Turpel-Lafond, she is originally from the Norse house of Cree Nation in Manitoba. Turpel-Lafond has even claimed she was born there.
The membership records of the Norwegian House told TBEN that there is no record of a Turpel having been on the membership list.
And former Norway House head Ron Evans told TBEN 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 teamed up with him to advocate for Jordan’s Principle, which is named after Norway House’s Jordan River Anderson. That principle says that any service normally accessible to non-Indigenous children should also be provided to Indigenous children without delay.
“I’ve heard many times how proud they are of their national members, including Jordan River Anderson…great people like Tina Keeper,” she said. “I never heard a conversation about Mary Ellen when I was up there. So that also weighs heavily.’
Blackstock said she has no doubt Turpel-Lafond’s claim to Indigenous ancestry propelled her impressive career. As an example, Blackstock pointed to how Time magazine recognized Turpel-Lafond in 1994 as one of the top 100 world leaders of tomorrow alongside the likes of Bill Gates.
She said Turpel-Lafond’s career achievements at that time had “added credibility because of her claims to be an Indigenous person herself”.
“The story was, as an Indigenous person, look at this significant achievement,” Blackstock said.
Blackstock noted that if Turpel-Lafond had really grown up with a deep dysfunction as an Indigenous person in reserve, as she had claimed, her career trajectory would be well worthy of that kind of recognition, because First Nations people “wanted the residential schools and colonialism and all those other government excesses that have really kept us out of those 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 award Turpel-Lafond honors or positions based in part on her claim of Indigenous ancestry, then those institutions are entitled to ask her for evidence.
“If that [ancestry] claim is used as currency to provide you with personal benefit or opportunities that you otherwise would not have had…then these are the right questions to ask and we [Indigenous people] must be willing to answer them.”
Many indigenous people are legitimately displaced
Blackstock said, according to her, one of the greatest harms caused by the proliferation of these cases of “sham Indians” is the effect it has on real Indigenous people who have been disconnected from their roots and communities.
“I really hope that these individuals making false claims are clearly separated from those who are on a legitimate journey to try and reclaim what is rightfully theirs,” Blackstock said.
She said that in her work with Indigenous youth, she encounters many people who have been adopted or have somehow lost touch with their biological family.
Blackstock said it can be really challenging to reconnect and figure out how all the pieces fit together.
“They’ve been through the care experience, maybe they’ve been through several [foster care] placements and they search their child-in-care records and they try to figure out where they belong. Which First Nation were they from? Who were their parents? What’s their story?”
She said this work is complicated by the uncertainty created by stories of hypocrites with no legitimate claim to Indigenous descent.
She noted that disconnected youth have lower self-confidence and are more prone to addictions and mental health problems.
“So if you have any of those people in your circle, really encourage them to continue that journey,” Blackstock said.