The Inuk professor says he raised identity concerns with MUN months ago

A Memorial University professor said he raised concerns about the issue of indigenousness and the institution's response to identity verification to the administration late last year.  (Darrell Roberts/CBC - photo credit)

A Memorial University professor said he raised concerns about the issue of indigenousness and the institution’s response to identity verification to the administration late last year. (Darrell Roberts/CBC – photo credit)

A Memorial University professor said he raised concerns late last year about the issue of “thinly veiled” claims to indigeneity and the institution’s response to identity verification with the administration.

Daniel Bennett, a Nunatsiavut beneficiary, provided emails to CBC News in December showing that he arranged a meeting with the university’s vice president for indigenous affairs and urged the school to issue policies to ensure proper Ensure verification, verification and recognition of Indigenous workers.

“Ultimately, the university needs to establish a policy that their professors — if they identify as indigenous — must have an appropriate policy but also exercise due diligence to ensure the integrity of the university is intact,” Bennett said on Tuesday.

It’s not clear how, if at all, such a policy would have made a difference in the case of MUN President Vianne Timmons, who says she feels she always makes a clear distinction that she doesn’t identify as Indigenous, but Mi ‘kmaw ancestors. While her online professional resume listed her membership in an unrecognized band as late as 2016, the 2019 copy of the document provided by MUN made no mention of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation.

Submitted by Daniel Bennett

Submitted by Daniel Bennett

Bennett began working at MUN as a professor in the business administration department in June. He originally applied as part of a recruitment for an indigenous cluster. As part of that process, he said, he submitted a letter of support from a former elected official of the Nunatsiavut government.

Although he was not hired as part of the cluster hiring, he was later contacted about employment. He said he was never asked for further confirmation that he was indigenous, which he felt was insufficient.

“In general, I had some concerns that some individuals would claim that they had Indigenous ancestry or heritage, which would be quite different from being an actual Indigenous member of a recognized community,” Bennett said.

“We should be better prepared”

Bennett said one of the people he’s worried about is Timmons — although he said he didn’t specifically name the president or anyone else during a December meeting with Catharyn Andersen, the vice president for indigenous affairs.

Bennett said he told Andersen he had concerns about identity verification and its impact on the university. He said he offered to help implement the guidelines but received no response after their first meeting.

“I said, ‘I think it’s coming… It’s going to be at Memorial University eventually, and we better be prepared for that,'” Bennett said.

“Unfortunately the guidelines were not in place before, but now this has certainly been uncovered and the right procedures need to be put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

In a statement, Andersen said there is a process for targeted hiring of indigenous clusters, including submitting a self-identification statement and a letter of support from an indigenous government, organization or leader.

“The university is aware of the fact that self-identification is no longer sufficient for targeted indigenous recruitments, and so we sought a letter of support from an indigenous government, organization or leader,” Andersen said.

“This extra step was intended to ensure that the candidates were not only claiming affiliation with a community, but were also claimed by that community.”

Andersen said the letters were reviewed by a board of elders to ensure the candidate was recognized by the community.

Their statement didn’t address broader concerns about a lack of identity policies or practices that apply to every hire.

However, Andersen said, “We were confident based on the information received that Mr. Bennett was a part of the Indigenous community he claimed.”

Bennett said he became curious about Timmon’s claims after she spoke at an event in August to celebrate Native American hiring.

“She said at the time that her great-great-grandmother or great-great-great-grandmother was from Conne River,” Bennett said.

“I found it strange that she didn’t know if it was like that [her] Great-great or great-great-great-grandmother. So it kind of set off a red flag in my head that she wasn’t actually connected to it.

‘Implicit’ Indigenousness

On February 28, Timmons said she has always made it clear that she has never claimed the identity of Mi’kmaw, only her lineage. She said she has not benefited in the past from speaking out about her origins or claiming membership in an unrecognized band in Nova Scotia. Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation is not recognized by the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq or the federal government.

“I have some major concerns about saying publicly that you have Indigenous heritage or ancestry,” Bennett said.

“What that implies without actually saying it is that you are indigenous. And when I say ‘indigenous’ they would usually mean you’re part of a recognized community, could be a band, a government or whatever.”

In a statement on Monday, the Board of Regents – MUN’s governing body – said: “While we initially assumed that President Timmons was not claiming an Indigenous identity, we have received a lot of feedback from the community.

“We have received important questions about the President’s actions, and we believe we have a responsibility to indigenous peoples and a fiduciary duty as a board to further investigate these issues.”

Bennett said the sensitivity surrounding the issue of an individual’s identity underscores the need for clear policy.

“There may be exceptions where someone does not have recognized membership in a community for some reason beyond their control,” Bennett said.

“Maybe government intervention taken by a community might not have full direct knowledge of how to actually get membership and legally go through that process which can be complex so any policy developed in that regard would need to do this. Look at all these different elements.”

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Timmons announced Monday that she would be taking six weeks paid leave. During that time, the university said it will convene a roundtable with Indigenous leaders to discuss Timmons’ past claims and his membership in an unrecognized gang.

“While I have shared that I am not Mi’kmaw and 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 had important conversations about and beyond that triggered our campus,” Timmons wrote in a statement released Monday morning.

“I have given thought to this feedback from the indigenous community and sincerely regret any hurt or confusion sharing my story may have caused. It was never my intention and I deeply apologize to those I influenced.”

No details on the leadership, scope and schedule of the indigenous round table were available Wednesday morning.

Timmons did not respond to CBC’s request for an interview regarding Bennett’s comments.

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