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University President on Paid Leave After Claiming Indigenous Identity

Memorial University

The president of Memorial University of Newfoundland went on paid leave after she became caught up in a scandal surrounding her claims of her Indigenous heritage. 

President Vianne Timmons’ paid leave from the university came after a report from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that questioned claims that Timmons was of Native American descent. The report was “prompted by questions raised by individuals, including those in Indigenous communities, across Canada,” it state. Specifically, the article was aimed at figuring out if Timmons' Indigenous identity opened any doors for her professionally. In the article, she claimed that it never did.

After the article questioning her heritage was released, Timmons issued a statement where she apologized and said that she will step back from her role from the university temporarily. 

"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 wrote in a statement released this week. "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."

CBC reported that the paid leave will last six weeks. In the meantime, the university will “[gather] Indigenous leaders” to discuss how to handle the controversy. The outlet noted that Timmons previously claimed to be Mi’kmaw, and believes that Indigenous “ancestry” and “identity” are not the same.

“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 added.

According to Fox News, Timmons explained that she joined the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation tribe around 2009 when her brother submitted their genealogy. Reportedly, the tribe is not recognized by Native Americans or the federal government. 

"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 in a statement. 

However, CBC News reported that it found “multiple references” of her Indigenous identity in her professional biographies, including for an advisory board, up until 2018. 

This isn’t the first time a university figure has been suspected of fabricating their Native American heritage.  In 2021, a Canadian academic, Carrie Bourassa, claimed to be Metis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit, but an investigation done by her colleagues found “no evidence that she had any indigenous ancestry.”

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