And she’s supposed to make me feel inspired?
Vianne Timmons, president of Memorial University of Newfoundland and former president of the University of Regina, is on a six-week paid leave of absence following criticisms of her claims of Mi’kmaq heritage. In a 2019 interview with CBC, she said her great, great grandmother was a Mi’kmaq woman who moved to Nova Scotia and married a Timmons. This is why she considers herself of Mi’kmaq heritage. But in that same interview, she admits she “wasn’t raised in Mi’kmaq culture.”
Despite this apparently limited connection to Indigenous ways of living, Timmons was awarded the Indspire Award in 2019, an award given to Indigenous Canadians who inspire their local communities and show young Indigenous people that they too can succeed. According to Canadian Geographic, Timmons was specifically given the education award for working to create “a safe, accessible and supportive environment for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students” at the University of Regina.
I’ve been a Métis student at the University of Regina since 2016, and I’ve never felt any inspiration or help from Timmons.
To make my position clear, I am against what Timmons has said and done. She is yet another figure acting in the interests of colonialism and settler culture – others in recent memory being Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and Carrie Bourassa – using claimed Indigeneity for selfish gain. I don’t think Timmons has ever intended to help the Mi’kmaq or broader Indigenous communities through the gains of her claimed Indigeneity. And if she has helped or will help, I don’t believe it’s proportionate to what she gets or has gotten for herself.
But now that I’ve clearly stated my position and hopefully won’t be misconstrued as a Timmons sympathizer, I need to also explain why this case and many other cases of claimed Indigeneity are complicated. Indigeneity isn’t a yes-or-no kind of thing. It isn’t just skin colour, it isn’t just language, it isn’t just ways of living or knowing, and it certainly isn’t just blood quantum. Indigeneity is complicated. And I know this because of my own struggles with my Indigenous identity.
I’ll never forget the day I got the letter from the Métis Federation of Canada informing me that my Métis lineage had been confirmed and my membership accepted. Enclosed was a membership card with my picture and my name. Printed on the back of that card was a declaration that the card bearer is the beneficiary of the collective rights of the Métis people of Canada.
I remember kneeling on the floor, smiling and crying. I remembered the times I told my friends in elementary school that I was Métis just for them to dismiss me with “no you aren’t, you’re White.” And how could I say they’re wrong? I couldn’t possibly be both, right? Colonialism delivers on its promises. But in that moment, looking at that letter and that card, I felt validated. As I embraced and reflected on my Métis identity, I understood more and more my lifelong feelings of confusion and inner conflict.
I don’t know if I’m part of the lost generation or the found generation of the Métis, but I’m Métis enough to have seen firsthand how claims of Indigeneity can be used selfishly and against reconciliation. Some members of my own family sought their Métis status solely for the possibility of tax advantages or other financial benefits. And I’ve heard those same family members say deplorable things about Indigenous people; even my grandma, who was raised by people who fought for the Northwest Resistance at the Battle of Batoche. How can you be racist toward yourself? I’d doubt such a thing could happen if I hadn’t seen it for myself again and again.
At first, I didn’t know what to do with all of this. But eventually, I figured out that the first step was admitting I was lost. I had to accept being led back to where I’m from by those who are still there. For me to find out who I am, I have to let others help me. We all heal together.
As I live with this internal conflict, Timmons accepts awards for her supposed Indigeneity with open arms. She has shown no tact or nuance in discussing her Indigenous heritage. It’s all for show. If she knew the pain I’ve endured, if she really felt the indescribable hopelessness that Indigenous Canadians bravely face every day they’re alive, she wouldn’t have waved the Mi’kmaq flag so haphazardly. As Bob Dylan said, “Don’t stand in the doorway / don’t block up the hall.”
That’s exactly what Timmons has done. She’s taken up space where real Indigeneity is supposed to be. She’s preventing reconciliation. I could never represent in words the fear that your people will be erased, so I won’t try. But what Timmons has done makes me that kind of scared. Such pretenders will occupy so much representation that soon only a hologram, an illusion void of any substance, of Indigeneity will remain. No spirit.
In an interview with CBC regarding the current situation with Timmons, Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe suggested a roundtable discussion between Indigenous leaders and students. I think Chief Joe’s recommendation isn’t only the best way forward, but it’s also exemplary of Indigenous ways of healing. We all heal together. The only way for us to overcome these conflicts is to work and think together. That means Timmons, those who support her, those who are against her, those who aren’t aligned, settler people, Indigenous people, and even new Canadians coming together and talking it out.
To me, it almost doesn’t matter – emphasis on almost – if Timmons has Mi’kmaq heritage or not. What matters is that she has misrepresented and acted against Indigeneity. It would be wrong for us to shun any and all people who identify as Indigenous but are yet separated from their history, language, and culture. I think many Indigenous Canadians can relate to the struggle of getting back to who they are. However, watching oneself receive the healing that others need more and doing nothing to change that is a kind of heartless that I cannot relate to. Canadians have a duty to uplift Indigeneity. Timmons only seems interested in uplifting herself.