Memorial University President Vianne Timmons decided to go on voluntary paid leave after she became engulfed in a scandal surrounding her claimed Indigenous heritage.
In a statement released Monday, Timmons apologized for any pain her disputed claims to Indigenous ancestry have caused. Memorial University is an academic institution located in Newfoundland and Labrador, a Canadian province.
The controversy stems from Timmons claiming she has never benefited from her Indigenous ancestry, which she maintains is different from Indigenous identity.
“While I have shared that I am not Mi’kmaw and I do not claim an Indigenous identity, questions about my intentions in identifying my Indigenous ancestry and whether I have benefited from sharing my understanding of my family’s history have sparked important conversations on and beyond our campus,” Timmons conceded.
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She claims she joined the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation tribe, a tribe which is not recognized by Native Americans or Canada’s federal government, for a brief time around 2009 when her brother submitted their genealogy.
“But then I looked into it on my own and I didn’t feel comfortable identifying as a member of a band that wasn’t official or as a member of a band anyway because I was not raised Mi’kmaw and so I removed it and never referred to it again,” Timmons said.
However, public documents, including a CV as recent as 2016, show she claimed membership in the tribe over a longer period of time and CBC News found references as late as 2018.
“I have been reflecting on this feedback from the Indigenous community, and 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,” Timmons said.
The embattled university president said she welcomed Memorial University’s Board of Regents’ decision to host an Indigenous-led round table discussion about the matter.
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“I am wholeheartedly supportive of this process to seek Indigenous guidance and knowledge. Indigenous Peoples must lead this conversation and we all have a role to play in listening and ensuring their voices are elevated in the weeks to come,” she said.
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There have been several high profile cases of individuals claiming Native American ancestry for their own professional advancement in recent years. During the 2020 campaign, then-President Trump blasted Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Fauxcahontas” after it was reported that she claimed Native American heritage at various points throughout her life; she later admitted she was wrong to do so.
More recently, Dylan Whiteduck, the chief of Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg, accused a purported Native American social justice organization of not actually being run by Native Americans and distributing fake ID cards to people who are not Native American.