Memorial University president apologizes, takes temporary leave, as Mi’kmaw claims scrutinized
Memorial University president Vianne Timmons is taking a voluntary, six-week paid leave of absence and is apologizing as the university gathers Indigenous leaders to discuss the issue of her statements of Mi’kmaw heritage.
“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 Monday morning.
“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.”
Minutes before Timmons issued a statement through Memorial University’s online Gazette, the university’s governing body sent its own statement indicating it’s convening a roundtable of Indigenous leaders.
“While our initial understanding was that president Timmons did not claim Indigenous identity, we have received a lot of feedback from the community,” said board of regents chair Glenn Barnes in the statement .
“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 explore these questions further.”
In an interview Friday with CBC News, Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe suggested the university gather a roundtable of Indigenous leaders and students.
Speaking with CBC News on Feb. 28, Timmons said she has always made a clear distinction that she never claimed Mi’maw identity, only ancestry. She said she has not benefited from discussing her ancestry or having claimed membership in an unrecognized band in Nova Scotia. Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation is neither recognized by the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq or by the federal government.
Timmons said she became a member of the Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation in Cape Breton after her brother sent in the family’s genealogy, around 2009.
“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.
CBC News found multiple references in professional biographies for Timmons up until 2018, including when she was appointed in 2018 to serve on the independent advisory board for Senate appointments, a non-partisan body that provides the prime minister with recommendations on nominations to the Senate.
A publicly available copy of Timmons’s CV, last updated in 2016, also listed her membership in the Bras d’Or band.
In response to a recent CBC News access-to-information request that asked for the CV Timmons provided when she applied for the president’s job, Memorial University said it had “no records responsive to your request.”
The university’s response added that Memorial did not retain any records of applications from the presidential search process, which was handled by a third-party executive search firm.
On Wednesday, after CBC News published a story detailing questions about Timmons’s statements and past membership, the university circulated Timmons’s resumé, saying the board of regents did have a copy, as part of the recommendation and approval process in 2019.
That CV does not mention membership in Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation.
Indigenous people asked to lead process
Both Barnes and Timmons said the process must be led by Indigenous people to seek their guidance and knowledge.
“Any action I have taken in sharing my story or promoting Indigenization in my professional roles was always undertaken in a spirit of reconciliation, curiosity and continued learning and respect for Indigenous peoples,” Timmons said.
“While this personal process started many years ago, I recognize these actions may be hurtful or cause harm.”
Timmons said she asked that she be allowed to take a temporary step back from her duties as president as the process unfolds.
Neil Bose, interim provost and academic vice-president, will take on the role of acting president and vice-chancellor.
“We must always be willing to learn and commit to doing better, and I appreciate all that you have had to say in this last week,” said Timmons in her statement. “As a proud member of the Memorial community, I remain faithfully and fully committed to continuing to advance our collective efforts to indigenize the university and look forward to the feedback from these important discussions.”
Meanwhile, Education Minister John Haggie dodged questions from PC MHA Barry Petten about his confidence in Timmons during question period in the House of Assembly Monday.
“This is a very complex one. It is not one for our department to step into. This is an issue between the Board of Regents, who hold the president’s contract, and the president themselves,” Haggie said.
Premier Andrew Furey was asked about the issue during a scrum with reporters and reiterated that MUN is governed by the Board of Regents, not the provincial government.
“Certainly [the Board of Regents] took immediate and appropriate action, and I look forward to — as I’m sure they do — the investigation involving an Indigenous roundtable,” Furey said.