The setting for Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s 2013 speech, entitled “Listening to the marginalized to address inequality,” could hardly have been more prestigious.
She was a featured speaker at an event called Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which was billed as “Canada’s largest gathering of scholars across disciplines.” It brought around 6,000 “academics, researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners” to the University of Victoria (UVic) to help “shape the Canada of tomorrow.”
At the time, Turpel-Lafond was B.C.’s representative for children and youth, charged by the B.C. Legislature with holding the provincial government accountable for its treatment of young people in care.
The former judge and law professor urged the crowd to take seriously the plight of marginalized Indigenous children on reserve, where “we have crappy teachers. We have crappy schools. We have very poor quality supports for those kids.”
To illustrate to the crowd how their individual action could help elevate a marginalized person, she offered an example from her own life.
“John Nilson, where are you,” she asked.
Nilson was apparently in the crowd. Between 1995 and 1999 he had been Saskatchewan’s minister of justice and attorney general.
Eventually she spotted him and said he “gave me a Q.C. as a lawyer, which gave me a lot of status, even though I myself was a very marginalized voice in the legal profession.” A Q.C. designation is a significant honour granted by the provincial government to accomplished lawyers.
Watch Turpel-Lafond thanking Nilson:
Oddly, CBC has been unable to find any evidence she was actually granted a Q.C.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Justice, “there is no record of a Q.C. designation,” for Turpel-Lafond. The Law Society of Saskatchewan echoed that point.
Her claim is also unlikely for another reason. A Q.C. is only awarded to lawyers with a minimum of 10 years of service. Turpel-Lafond was called to the bar in 1991 and was appointed a judge in 1998, giving her just seven years. Judges are not eligible to receive a Q.C. designation.
In an email, CBC asked Turpel-Lafond why she claimed to have a Q.C. She hasn’t replied. Nilson, who retired from politics in 2016, also hasn’t replied to a series of voicemails, emails and text messages.
For more than three decades, Turpel-Lafond has been at the forefront of Canadian public life, helping to shape policy and legislation related to Indigenous people. Throughout that time she has claimed to be a treaty Indian of Cree ancestry.
But last month, CBC published an investigation that found some of her claims about her Cree heritage, her treaty Indian status, the community where she grew up and her academic accomplishments are inconsistent with publicly available documents.
She has since issued a public statement on Twitter that did not contradict any fact outlined in CBC’s investigation.
The revelation about Turpel-Lafond’s alleged Q.C. designation is just one of several inconsistencies that have come to light since CBC’s original story was published. Taken together, they appear to present a pattern — that Turpel-Lafond has made claims about her identity or accomplishments that are not supported by publicly available documentation.
CBC has received a series of tips that have led to more unanswered questions about Turpel-Lafond. In addition, her ex-husband Mark Austin has decided to speak publicly, offering his view that Turpel-Lafond is not a “villain or fraudster,” but “more like a flawed hero.”
A missing book
In her 2018 CV, Turpel-Lafond claimed to have authored a book that, according to CBC’s research, doesn’t appear to actually exist.
The CV says the book Indigenous Custom Adoption and Reconciliation was published in 2017. However, a Google search of that title turns up just one hit — Turpel-Lafond’s CV.
Her CV says she co-wrote the book with professor Grant Charles. In an email, CBC asked the UBC professor of social work if he could provide a copy of it.
“The 2017 book you mentioned doesn’t ring a bell,” he replied.
By email, CBC asked Turpel-Lafond for a copy of the book or an explanation as to why she claimed to write a book that doesn’t exist.
She didn’t reply.
According to Grant Charles, he and Turpel-Lafond have done some work together on the topic of customary adoption.
In his email to CBC, Charles said that in 2017 they worked on a paper on the topic, but never published it.
In addition, when Turpel-Lafond was B.C.’s representative for children and youth, Charles served as her adviser and worked on a 36-page report on custom adoption that was published by her office in 2015.
A master’s thesis on Indigenous custom adoption
There is one other wrinkle to the story of the missing book.
Turpel-Lafond’s CV lists the publisher as “Dawn Thomas.” CBC was unable to locate a publishing company by that name.
However, CBC has learned Turpel-Lafond had a student named Dawn Thomas, who was also her employee and friend.
Thomas wrote her master’s thesis in 2016 on Indigenous custom adoption to conclude her studies at UVic. The front page says the clients for the thesis were Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, representative for children and youth and Dr. Grant Charles, associate professor, school of social work, University of British Columbia.
In the acknowledgements section, Thomas thanks Turpel-Lafond, calling her “my mentor, friend and boss.”
In January 2015, Turpel-Lafond appointed Thomas as her acting deputy representative for children and youth. Turpel-Lafond’s CV says that in 2015-16 she was an external examiner for Thomas in relation to her work toward a master’s of dispute resolution at UVic.
“Mary Ellen has supported me and believed in me from the minute she knew I was working toward completing my MA,” Thomas wrote. “There is no way I would have finished this project without her support.”
Of Grant Charles, she said his “patience, support and sense of humour saved me more than once during this process.”
In emails to Charles and Thomas, CBC asked if they could shed some light on their professional relationships with each other and Turpel-Lafond, and these various works on customary adoption. No one has replied.
CBC has verified that Turpel-Lafond has published two books.
In 1993, she co-authored In the Rapids: Navigating the Future of First Nations with former Assembly of First Nations chief Ovide Mercredi.
Then, in 2004, she wrote Maskêko-Sâkahikanihk: 100 Years for a Saskatchewan First Nation, which examines the history of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, which she married into in the mid-1990s.
In a 2005 interview with Saskatchewan Sage about the Muskeg Lake book, Turpel-Lafond told the reporter, “I’ve written a few books before.… One with Ovide Mercredi on First Nations history and the law, and I’ve written law books.”
It’s not clear which “law books” she may have been referring to, as they are not outlined in her CV.
Incorrectly claimed membership in law societies
It’s not just a book that’s missing. Turpel-Lafond’s name is also absent from the membership rolls of the law societies in both Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, despite her public claims to the contrary.
A 2018 news release announcing Turpel-Lafond’s appointment as director of the UBC Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre said she was a member of Nova Scotia’s law society. And in 2022, on the website of her newly formed law corporation lmlawgroup.ca that claim is repeated.
However, according to an official with the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, she hasn’t been a member of the organization since 1998.
That 2022 profile also said she is a member of the Law Society of Saskatchewan. That organization said she hasn’t been a member since June 2018 when “she changed her membership status to inactive.”
Both the Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan organizations told CBC that if someone were incorrectly claiming membership, they would immediately reach out and ask them to stop.
Law partnership being dissolved
In August, Turpel-Lafond and B.C. lawyer Leah Mack registered Lafond & Mack Law Group LLP, a new firm described on its website as “wholly Indigenous-owned and operated.” It noted the two women were founders and partners.
Less than a week after CBC published its investigation, Turpel-Lafond’s name and profile were temporarily struck from the site.
In an email, Mack said that despite the fact she and Turpel-Lafond had registered a company, notified the law society and created a website, their partnership had still been in the exploratory phase.
She said they recently, “determined that this [partnership] was not feasible for strictly business reasons,” noting they are now unwinding the arrangement, adding “you caught us in this transition.”
CBC asked Mack if the investigation into Turpel-Lafond and her ancestry claims played a role in that decision. Mack did not reply.
It appears the two women are continuing to work together, but with a significant difference.
The firm is now called Mack Law Corp. The sole founder and partner is listed as Leah Mack. Turpel-Lafond appears to be a staff lawyer.
Name not on official band membership list
Turpel-Lafond says she’s been a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan since she married George Lafond — who is from the First Nation — in the mid-1990s.
However, a confidential January 2012 Muskeg Lake membership list recently leaked to CBC raises questions about that.
It contains the full names, birth dates, addresses and status numbers of all adult band members at that time. Everyone on the list had a status number, indicating they are legally registered as Indians with the federal government.
George Lafond’s name is on the list. Turpel-Lafond’s is not.
As noted in CBC’s original investigation, Turpel-Lafond’s name is also absent from the 2021 Muskeg Lake voters list publicly available online.
An Oct. 12 statement from Muskeg Lake Chief Kelly Wolfe said Turpel-Lafond, “has been a member of Muskeg Lake for nearly 30 years.” His statement also notes she “is part of one of our kinship families,” which seems to suggest she may have been adopted into the community.
CBC asked her and Chief Wolfe to explain her absence from the lists and describe her precise relationship to the community. Neither has replied.
Evaluating Turpel-Lafond’s claim her dad was adopted
For decades, Turpel-Lafond has claimed her dad was Cree. However, during her months of interactions with CBC, she refused to provide any details about who she thought his parents were, only hinting at family secrets.
Two days after CBC’s story was published, she offered additional detail in a statement posted to Twitter. It said her non-Indigenous grandparents adopted her dad, “who they knew to be a Cree child from Norway House.” Norway House is an isolated northern community consisting of the Norway House Cree Nation and a small municipality.
Her grandfather, William Nicholson Turpel, worked for Indian Affairs as the doctor of the Indian Hospital and the Indian Residential School in Norway House in the 1920s and 1930s. His wife Eleanor was a nurse.
CBC has attempted to evaluate Turpel-Lafond’s new, specific account of her father’s adoption into her grandparents’ family.
Jean Teillet, a Métis lawyer from B.C., said one of the keys to that evaluation is to consider oral history.
“If her dad was adopted from a Cree family then people in that community will know that story,” said Teillet. “Norway House is not a big place.”
Historical records show that in the late 1920s, there were about 600 people living in the community. Those records say 500 of those people were Cree or “half-breeds,” while the rest were “white.”
Teillet said if a white doctor and his wife adopted a Cree child from the community, “that would be a big event in a community at the time.”
“Whose family was he adopted from? And why was he adopted by the doctor at the residential school? What was that all about?” Teillet wondered.
CBC asked the current chief of Norway House, Larson Anderson, if he knew anything about Dr. Turpel and his wife adopting a Cree child.
“I have tried to get info but nobody remembers them,” he said by text. He declined an interview.
‘As far as I know he wasn’t adopted,’ says Norway House man
Joe Keeper remembers that time period.
The 94-year-old Cree man, who was born and raised in Norway House, went to school with Turpel-Lafond’s father Billy, or William Turpel.
“As far as I know he wasn’t adopted. He was not an Indian boy. He was a white boy,” Keeper told CBC.
Keeper said that years ago, in the 1990s, he heard that Turpel-Lafond had claimed her dad had been adopted from a Cree family.
He said that didn’t ring true to him, but he asked around anyhow. He said one of the people he called was Tanis Sunde, a non-Indigenous girl he and Billy went to school with.
“She said she never knew of any Indian adoptions,” said Keeper, recalling the phone conversation with Sunde, who had retired in Victoria. She has since died.
Keeper said he also phoned Mary Poker, a Cree woman and one of his distant relatives. Keeper said that in the 1930s, she worked in the Turpels’ home as “domestic help.”
“I remember asking Mary if she remembered any Indian children Dr. Turpel had had there. And she couldn’t remember anyone,” he said. Mary Poker has also since died.
Turpel-Lafond’s public statement failed to explain how two key documents uncovered by CBC fit with her claim that her grandparents adopted her dad from a Cree family.
Taken together, a 1929 newspaper announcement and a 1932 baptismal record seem to confirm William Turpel was born on July 24, 1929, in Victoria, B.C., to William Nicholson and Eleanor Turpel — Turpel-Lafond’s non-Indigenous grandparents.
In an email, CBC asked Turpel-Lafond questions about that boy, who was apparently born in Victoria.
“Who was this child? Was he your father? If not, who was he and whatever became of him?”
She did not reply.
“I know she’s a very talented and brilliant woman,” said Keeper. “But I can’t figure out why she tells such different stories at different times.”
‘A flawed hero’
Mark Austin, a retired social policy consultant and blueberry farmer from Nova Scotia, has also been puzzled by some of Turpel-Lafond’s claims about her life.
He’s kept his eye on her career over the years, because for almost a decade they were husband and wife.
CBC reached out to Austin months ago, during its initial investigation about Turpel-Lafond and her claims. At that time, he declined to do an on-the-record interview, but agreed to speak on condition that he not be quoted.
After CBC’s story on Turpel-Lafond was published, Austin wrote an op-ed criticizing CBC for what he thought was unfair “tabloid” journalism that unnecessarily diminished the work of Turpel-Lafond. He said the purpose of his article was to argue CBC had “turned her image into that of villain and fraudster when she’s more like a flawed hero.”
After his op-ed was submitted to CBC and at least one other publication, he agreed to allow his earlier interviews with CBC to be quoted.
“We met in Strasbourg, France,” he told CBC, recalling how he and Turpel-Lafond got together.
It was 1984. They were both attending a summer course on international and comparative human rights law.
“We were sitting there and she noticed my case of my glasses was Hakim which was a familiar brand so she thought I must be Canadian.”
They hit it off and married, “I don’t know, five or six months later,” Austin said.
Turpel-Lafond was 21.
Austin said he got to know and love Turpel-Lafond’s dad, William Turpel, who died in 1987. Austin said he had always believed William was a Cree man born in Norway House. Austin’s best guess was that William was the product of an affair between Turpel-Lafond’s grandfather and a Cree woman.
Turpel-Lafond now publicly says her dad was adopted by her non-Indigenous grandparents.
Austin said wherever the truth lies, “I believe there’s never been a time in [Turpel-Lafond’s] life that she didn’t consider and believe that there’s a biological component of Indigeneity within her.”
“Whatever the extent of her biological connection to Indigeneity, her life-long self-understanding is that she is partly Cree. From her late teens it guided her educational choices, political concerns and career pursuits.”
He acknowledged she may have been untruthful about some things.
For example, he was surprised to learn that, as CBC has reported, multiple newspaper profiles have said she was born and/or raised on a reserve or in Norway House, Man.
He said he has always known Turpel-Lafond was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ont., because he’s seen her birth records.
“I married her,” explained Austin, who is non-Indigenous. “We had to have certificates and so forth.”
He said while some of those newspaper stories could be explained away as errors by the reporter, one example seems particularly problematic.
In a March 7, 1998, article in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Turpel-Lafond said, “As a First Nations person from Manitoba, I grew up in the shadow of Saskatchewan Indians.”
“That doesn’t wash with the facts as I know them,” said Austin in an email to CBC after examining the article. “It looks to me like fabrication, possibly the self-delusion of someone desperately wanting to belong.”
But, he said, he wouldn’t want these sorts of inaccuracies to detract from, “nearly four decades of commitment and achievement.”
‘Stretching’ truth to advance the cause
Austin said that based on what he knows, Turpel-Lafond has been interested in fighting for social justice for Indigenous people since her early teens when she started reading Karl Marx.
He said she realized, “wait a minute, my father has got this Cree affiliation and there’s a lot of injustice around that and I’m going to fight that.”
Austin said that over time, that Indigenous connection appears to have become an “autobiographical rudder” of her identity. He said that seemed to accelerate when her father died in 1987.
“When she lost her father early that just increased the bond where, ‘This is who I am and now I’m going to fight the man,’ the man being white colonial patriarchy,” Austin said.
“There’s no doubt that she would be very capable of stretching anything that would give her more ability to speak out on these things, and more standing and more credibility, and in terms of her personal identity to make her feel more connected.”
Austin said he and Turpel-Lafond divorced in 1993. He said he’s not speaking as a disgruntled ex-husband, but instead because, “she’s done a lot of important work and I’m supportive of all of that.”