Editorial, Opinion

Representation, not impersonation

On Feb. 7, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond returned her honorary degree from Royal Roads University. This is the second honorary degree she has returned—one of 11 she received, including from McGill—after an investigation late last year by the CBC called her claims of Indigenous identity into question. The Canadian lawyer and advocate was widely considered a preeminent scholar on Indigenous issues in Canada and secured many prominent positions, such as the University of British Columbia’s academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, under this guise. Her actions, however, illustrate only the most visible failure to create spaces for Indigenous people and knowledge in Canadian academia. 

Turpel-Lafond was appointed to roles created for Indigenous people, effectively stealing limited space available for Indigenous women in positions of power. Her actions unjustly call into question Indigenous identity for all white-passing Indigenous people, which is something Indigenous people must constantly fight to claim due to centuries of colonial erasure through legislation such as the Indian Act. Every day that McGill chooses not to revoke the degree, the institution condones her lies and the harm they have caused. McGill must get ahead of Turpel-Lafond and immediately revoke her degree before she can return it and present herself as a white saviour.

Although her actions are unconscionable, they open the floor to long-overdue commentary on  the exclusion and erasure of Indigenous peoples in prominent institutions such as McGill. Meaningful representation necessitates the inclusion of Indigenous voices beyond just hiring one or two Indigenous professors. It means creating a system where there are no barriers in place to prevent Indigenous peoples from thriving, practicing their cultures, and speaking their minds without fear of retribution. 

McGill claims to value Indigenous voices. However, there are merely a handful of Indigenous lecturers, along with only around 150 students, or approximately 0.4 per cent of the student body, who identify as First Nations, Inuit, or Métis at McGill. It is easy to fulfill equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) requirements when it seems that McGill is satisfied with having one or no Indigenous professors in a department. Yet, this is only the most visible failure in creating proper representation in academia. Indigenous professors are compelled to work within a Eurocentric framework which only prioritizes Western considerations of academia, such as publication count, and stifles Indigenous knowledge systems. Ignorant white professors continue to teach Indigenous topics at the university, often with a colonial gaze.

Part of the issue is the unreasonable barriers to entry for Indigenous people into academia. Along with the already brutal publish-or-perish requirements in place for academics, Indigenous people, and especially Indigenous women, must contend with systemic barriers to education, lower-than-average incomes, and systemic and institutionalized violence. The ongoing genocide of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, along with police who are either indifferent or participatory, is a striking example. Once inside academic institutions, Indigenous topics are seen as “unacademic” or not worth the department’s time. Racialized people at the university continue to contend with James McGill, a slaveholder of Black and Indigenous people, being glorified and memorialized as the namesake of the university. 

The structure of academia itself must change. The existing barriers to education at all levels for Indigenous students must be recognized by the university, which should adjust its admissions criteria accordingly. Instead of just hiring the professors who publish the most, real-world experience and traditional Indigenous ways of knowing must be seen as academic and valuable. McGill actively sustains an environment of systemic racism, showing that racialized professors are unwelcome and excluded by the administration. To combat this, the university must implement policies that empower and uplift Indigenous voices, such as instituting mandatory EDI training for all professors, having more than just a token number of Indigenous and Black professors, and ensuring that Indigenous subjects and knowledges receive the academic respect they deserve.    

The response to Turpel-Lafond’s disgraceful impersonation of Indigenous identity should not be to question all claims of Indigeneity; rather, it should be an opportunity for institutions across Canada to implement changes and create true representation across all levels—from staff to students.

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One Comment

  1. “Ignorant white professors continue to teach Indigenous topics at the university, often with a colonial gaze.”
    Name and shame them, then. Don’t give me a link to some University of Toronto study. Tell me which departments and what professors. You won’t, however, because it’s a baseless claim. The History department has some of the best professors that incorporate Indigenous epistemology into courses; whether it be oral histories, traditions or culture, these epistemologies are presented from the Indigenous nation they originated from. Decolonization is about reconciling with our colonial past and understanding how colonialism continues to affect the present. That means critically re-evaluating the colonial sources at the time— the mere teaching of these euro-centric sources is not approaching history from a “colonial gaze.”

    Secondly, if you see this change, I suggest the McGill Editorial Board adopt the same policies. Walk the talk. How representative of Indigenous people is the Editorial Board? If it’s “0 or 1,” you’re engaging in the very practices you’re accusing the university of.

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