A birth certificate recently obtained by CBC directly contradicts Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s public claims about her father’s ancestry and the identity of his parents.
The government-issued document says William Turpel is the natural-born child of British parents, not an adopted Cree boy of undetermined parentage as Turpel-Lafond has claimed her father was.
Turpel-Lafond, considered to be one of Canada’s most successful and decorated Indigenous scholars and legal professionals, has for decades claimed to be of Indigenous ancestry through her father William Turpel, who she said was Cree. She has said she was the “first Treaty Indian” appointed to the judicial bench in Saskatchewan history.
Earlier this year, a CBC investigation uncovered evidence that cast doubt on her claims to a Cree ancestry. For example, a newspaper birth announcement and a baptismal record indicate William Turpel was born to British parents — Dr. William Nicholson Turpel and Eleanor Rhoda Turpel — who Turpel-Lafond says are her grandparents.
As part of its investigation, CBC asked Turpel-Lafond how her dad could be Cree when his parents were British. She refused to answer, only hinting at family secrets and shame, saying “I will never call anyone out.”
However, in a public statement days after the story was published, Turpel-Lafond declared that her father had been adopted.
She wrote that her non-Indigenous grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. Turpel, “adopted my father, who they knew to be a Cree child from Norway House (Manitoba), although this was not done in a formal manner.” She offered no evidence for this claim.
After the story published, a group called the Indigenous Women’s Collective, which includes retired Indigenous senator Lillian Dyck, called on 11 universities to revoke the honorary doctorates they had granted Turpel-Lafond. They said the reason for their call was Turpel-Lafond’s false ancestry claims.
“Granting an honorary doctorate to a pretendian [pretend Indian] advances the colonial notion that a Caucasian person impersonating Indigeneity is a worthy and suitable candidate,” the statement says. Each of those 11 institutions has committed to conduct a review.
Now, CBC has obtained an official birth certificate for a William Turpel, registered with BC’s Vital Statistics Agency, which says he’s the child of British parents.
The document, signed by Eleanor Turpel and the district registrar at the time, says William Turpel was born alive and to full term in Victoria’s Jubilee Hospital on July 24, 1929. It says his mother Eleanor’s “racial origin” was English while Dr. Turpel, his father, was British.
The birth certificate lists the baby’s name as William Loosely Turpel. The 1932 baptismal record and 1987 death certificate known to be connected to Turpel-Lafond’s father identify him by the same name — William Loosely Turpel. Loosely is Eleanor’s maiden name.
In summary, official documents say William Loosely Turpel was born to Dr. and Mrs. Turpel on July 24, 1929, in a Victoria hospital.
By contrast, Turpel-Lafond claims without evidence that her father, William Turpel, was a Cree child, unofficially adopted by Dr. and Mrs. Turpel.
CBC provided Turpel-Lafond with a copy of the birth certificate and asked a series of questions.
Among them was, “if your dad was a Cree child from Norway House adopted by your grandparents, then whatever happened to the William Loosely Turpel who was born in Victoria?”
She has not replied.
Turpel-Lafond says she was born in Norway House
In 2007, during a national radio interview, Turpel-Lafond claimed that she was born in Norway House, Man.
The claim is surprising, because CBC has found no evidence that it’s true and plenty of evidence that it’s incorrect — that in fact she was born and raised in the Niagara Falls, Ont., area.
On Feb. 9, 2007, on CBC’s The Current, guest host Elizabeth Gray was speaking to Turpel-Lafond about her new role as British Columbia’s first legislature-appointed representative for children and youth.
“There are some people who might say you are uniquely placed to be able to understand and to help vulnerable children because you yourself were a vulnerable child. Is that fair?” Gray asked.
Turpel-Lafond agreed, mentioning that she had grown up with violence and alcoholism in the home.
“Where were you born?” Gray interjected.
“Well, like, Norway House, Manitoba,” Turpel-Lafond replied, haltingly.
This is the most direct and clear example CBC has found of Turpel-Lafond claiming to have been born on the Norway House Cree Nation. But it’s by no means the only example.
When testifying before the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples in 2019, she said “I am [a] Cree person originally from the Prairies.”
In the investigation earlier this year, CBC outlined that on many occasions over that past 30 years, she has described her traumatic childhood on reserve.
For example, on Aug. 5, 2007, she told the Victoria Times Colonist she was born “on a reserve in Northern Manitoba.” According to the article, she said that during her childhood “she saw her alcoholic father beat her mother, endured harsh physical mistreatment herself, was present when somebody came to the house following a murder.”
“I went through the whole thing,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. “I saw the whole range at an early age.… I don’t really remember a time where I was completely away from that.”
Evidence points to Niagara Falls
CBC’s investigation found plenty of reasons to conclude she was not in fact from Norway House, but instead Niagara Falls, Ont.
For example, federal voting records in 1962, 1963 and 1968 all show that Turpel-Lafond’s mother and father lived in Niagara Falls. Turpel-Lafond was born in February 1963.
A Niagara Falls high school yearbook shows Turpel-Lafond as a Grade 9 student in 1977. Earlier yearbooks show her oldest sister attending high school in 1970, when Turpel-Lafond would have been about 7 years old.
The 1996 edition of Canadian Who’s Who says Turpel-Lafond was born in Niagara Falls. She is listed as one of the editorial advisers of the publication that year.
Cousins of Turpel-Lafond and her ex-husband, Mark Austin, all say she was born and raised in the Niagara Falls area.
In fact, Austin told CBC in an interview that he had seen her birth certificate as they were filling out the marriage paperwork.
“There’s a birth certificate that would show, born in a St. Catharines hospital,” he said. St. Catharines is near Niagara Falls.
Austin added Turpel-Lafond’s claim to have been from Norway House “does sound fabricated.”
“This is what’s really unfortunate is that she’s constructed a whole bunch of things to really legitimize her identity,” he told CBC, though he emphasized that despite those sorts of problems, she has done good work for Indigenous people.
In addition, former Norway House chief and band councillor Ron Evans told CBC he was born and raised in Norway House and he doesn’t remember any Turpels living in the small community.
“I was born in 57 so I’m sure [if she actually lived in Norway House] I would have crossed paths with her somewhere,” he told CBC. “I know that we don’t have any Turpels in our membership list.”
CBC sent a copy of the audio from the 2007 episode of The Current to Turpel-Lafond, requesting once again that she say definitively if she was born in Norway House or Niagara Falls.
She did not reply.