Swift and sure action needed on Timmons
The university president's deceit harms the province and its people.
If anyone has a doubt about what to do and why to do it, they need only look to the university’s motto: Provehito in altum. Launch into the deep.
The person who “launches forth into the deep” escapes from the smallness and narrowness of life, from the concerns of an individual, to think in a big way about life. It is on the deep that we feel the need of one another, we feel the presence of something much larger that encompasses us all.
The evidence is clear for anyone willing to see.
Vianne Timmons has falsely claimed Indigenous identity.
Worse, she has lied about that, too.
Timmons told CBC news in a recent interview that she has never claimed Indigenous identity yet she did so in 2019 when she accepted the nomination for and the award given only to Indigenous people by a group representing Indigenous people. Timmons was clearly Identified as a Mi’gmaw person from Nova Scotia. She made no effort to correct that in 2019 and has not taken any steps to correct the record since.
There are other stories circulating both in Newfoundland and Labrador and across the country to Regina in the wake of CBC’s story. They are credible if only because Timmons lied so obviously not once but twice in the same interview with CBC.
Timmons continues to present herself as someone with Mi’kmaq heritage even though this too is blatantly not true. She has one ancestor – possibly - and that one lived hundreds of years ago.
Watch the CBC news story and the 27 minute interview for yourself. Read Timmons’ statement issued before the story aired, which includes at least one obvious lie.
If you have any lingering doubts, then they can listen to two interviews – St. John’s Morning Show and Here and Now - with Pamela Palmater. She is a lawyer, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, and a member of the Eel River First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community in New Brunswick.
“Even if [Timmons] did have some distant ancestor from hundreds of years ago,” Palmater told CBC, “that in and of itself no more makes her Mi'kmaw than if she had a distant ancestor from hundreds of years ago from Germany, for example.”
What would be the reason why people would be calling her Mi'kmaw if she herself wasn't portraying herself to be Mi'kmaw, holding herself out to be Mi'kmaw, putting in her CV that she was Mi'kmaw, or somehow making references to that? No one would just randomly ask that.
Palmater believes the right thing for the university’s Board of Regents to do is suspend Timmons immediately and find a credible person to conduct a thorough investigation.
The creation of a university that was not riven on racial lines or, like the society that created it, along religious lines reinforces the symbolic role of the university as an enduring vision of Newfoundland and Labrador as a place of respect, harmony, and prosperity for all people.
Unfortunately, despite being aware of this issue for at least a week, the Board of Regents and the university senior administration are now complicit in Timmons’ fraud. They endorse her defense, using university staff and resources to distract, deflect, and divert attention from Timmons’ behaviour - the only issue - with the claim that Indigenous identity is complex. Implicitly that is supposed to justify the latest version of Timmons’ claim about her distant Indigenous relative.
Palmater doesn’t see it that way and it is hard for any reasonable person to disagree with her. After all an ancestor is “one from whom a person is descended, whether on the father's or mother's side, at any distance of time.” Timmons may have an ancestor who was Mi’gmaw but that is all.
To paraphrase the definition provided by the University of Massachusetts at Andover, heritage is the range of contemporary activities, meanings, and behaviors that we draw from the full range of our inherited traditions, monuments, objects, and culture. By Timmons’ own statement, she cannot have any Mi’gmaw heritage since she was not raised as a member of the Mi’gmaw community. Still, on many occasions over the past few days she has claimed that heritage which she cannot have.
As for identity, that is just as straightforward. Timmons has clearly claimed to be a Mi’gmaw person, although she denies that now in spite of clear evidence. But as Hilary Weaver has pointed out, identity includes not just an individual’s statement but also recognition by a community and external recognition.
Timmons claimed identity in the past despite not having the identity recognised by Nova Scotia Mi’gmaw outside of one group that claims to be a First Nation but that is, itself, completely unrecognized as a First Nation group either by other Mi’gmaw people or by the federal government.
All that Timmons has done when confronted with the evidence of her false claims is retract the claim of identity now. But she clearly made such a claim as recently as 2019 – there may well be other such claims since – and did so for some time before that. Timmons continues to claim Mi’gmaw heritage even thought she obviously cannot have it.
The university has defended Timmons. But that is not all. The university has deployed a bureaucratic and arguably racist approach to the issue to further give cover to Timmons. After the CBC story aired on Wednesday, the university issued a passive aggressive gag order.
It began with the common line in university statements on this issues. It focuses on the irrelevant fact that identity is a complex issue. “The conversations around these issues are ones that must be led by Indigenous people,” the statement from the university administration to all students and professors said. “As such, the Office of Indigenous Affairs will be leading conversations on the matter. We respectfully ask that the university community leave space for us to gather and discuss.”
The Board of Regents made the position official in a statement issued in advance of its scheduled regular meeting.
Memorial University’s Board of Regents recognizes the complex and serious nature of Indigenous heritage and Indigenous identity.
It is also aware of the importance and need for this conversation to be guided by Indigenous people.
“This is a significant and sensitive topic that requires due consideration,” said Glenn Barnes, Board chair. “Those conversations have already started and will continue at the Board’s regularly scheduled March meeting today.”
These statements are troublesome for three reasons. Firstly, an official of the Indigenous Affairs office - the Interim Director of Indigenous Engagement and Reconciliation, no less – tweeted an elaborate defence of Timmons on Tuesday relying on many of the same false claims and rationalizations deployed by the university. The Office is not impartial or its own ability to handle these issues properly is suspect.
Secondly, Timmons’ fraud is not an Indigenous issue. Considering as one proceeds from the false and inherently racist assumption that all Indigenous people are alike. At best, it affects one Indigenous group but even within the Mi’gmaw community there may be divided opinion. All Indigenous people are not alike. In itself, the university’s attitude flagrantly violates the spirit if not the letter of the university’s own policy against racism.
Thirdly, and more importantly, Timmons’ behaviour raises questions of integrity, character, and honesty. These are core values that the Board of Regents must uphold, that apply equally to all members of the university community and to the entire province. The issue may touch on a particular community within the province - Mi’gmaw people - but the values it involves are common to all people. The Board of Regents has so far failed to protect those values in its handling of the Timmons’ affair. This is unacceptable.
That brings us to the role the provincial government might play in this crisis. All but a handful of the Board of Regents are appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council. The provincial government provides the bulk of the university’s funding. It is the only university in the province, created originally in the aftermath of the Great War as a living memorial to all those who gave their lives in defence of the values we share. Those dead included Indigenous men who were accepted as volunteers equal to every other volunteer. Newfoundland before 1949 did not follow the racist practices of Canada toward Indigenous people. The creation of a university that was not riven on racial lines or, like the society that created it, along religious lines reinforces the symbolic role of the university as an enduring vision of Newfoundland and Labrador as a place of respect, harmony, and prosperity for all people.
All of that gives the Board of Regents overwhelming reason to have acted already. It has failed. The provincial government might wait for the weekend to see if the Regents can find the necessary moral courage to act. But if the Regents continue to dither, Cabinet has sufficient power under section 28 of the Memorial University Act to replace the Regents with people who can do the right thing.
Cabinet has an obligation to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, to protect the university, its reputation, and its integrity from any further damage. What’s more, the Government Newfoundland and Labrador has an obligation to uphold its own policy of reconciliation with Indigenous people, not just because it is important Indigenous people but because for reconciliation to be sincere and meaningful, it must involve all the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.
It must act swiftly.
This is an excellent article. Ive been a faculty member at MUN since 1995. It’s clear that our President and the Sr Admin that she has surrounded herself with are making some very poor decisions. The current set of issues surrounding the President and her ancestry is just the latest in a series of missteps. She should never have been appointed in the first place. The real problem is the lack of understanding of academic norms in either the board of regents or the provincial government. Things have been going downhill since the Eddy Campbell affair. After that shemozzel we’ve never had any credible applications for sr positions. And we had to pay a huge salary just to get anyone. Memorial has some massive problems, starting with leadership, but including a massive financial hole, and a demographic situation that is just awful. The current administration is ignoring all that and focusing solely on getting bums in seats (mostly international) by lowering standards. The train wreck is happening. Add indigenous issues to this and you get the Monty Python script that we are watching unfold.