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The University of British Columbia says it deeply regrets its handling of the case of retired judge and former law professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who was the subject of a CBC investigation about her claims of Indigenous heritage.

A statement signed by interim UBC president Deborah Buszard says the university is reviewing its processes regarding Indigenous status and "truthfulness in hiring."

The UBC statement comes on the same day that Vancouver Island University says it has accepted the return of an honorary doctorate from Turpel-Lafond after it told her it was reviewing her eligibility for the honour.

The university says in a statement Tuesday that Turpel-Lafond returned the 2013 doctorate of laws after being told the university had initiated "a process" in response to requests from the university community and a group called the Indigenous Women’s Collective.

It says it won't offer further comment on Turpel-Lafond's case, but that it broadly condemns Indigenous identity fraud.

Following the announcement, the collective wrote on Twitter that there was "One down - 10 to go." Turpel-Lafond has 10 other honourary degrees from various universities.

Turpel-Lafond has not responded to previous requests for comment, although she told the CBC when she was growing up she didn't question the biological parentage of her father, who she had said was Cree.

She introduced herself at a 2019 Senate standing committee meeting on Aboriginal Peoples by saying: "I am a Cree person originally from the Prairies."

UBC, where Turpel-Lafond was a tenured law professor and served as director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, announced this month she was no longer with the university as of Dec. 16.

@UBC regrets handling of Turpel-Lafond, as she loses honour at different university. #IndigenousIdentity

When the CBC story first broke, UBC said Indigenous identity had not been an explicit requirement for the job.

In Tuesday's statement, Buszard and provost and academic vice-president Gage Averill said that original comment and the university's silence about its interpretation was seen as constituting support for Turpel-Lafond.

"We deeply regret the impact of this and promise to do more now, and in the future," they said.

The pair said university executives have had discussions with Indigenous scholars and community members.

"While we have sought advice, we want to state emphatically that we take full responsibility for the actions and inactions of UBC in this matter."

The statement says UBC's assessment of hiring processes deals with complex issues.

"The possibility that anyone might misrepresent themselves for personal and professional benefit, or that misleading credentials or publications might be submitted for employment, is one that we take extremely seriously, as these kinds of actions undermine the fundamental mission of a university, divert resources from deserving individuals and strengthen inequities," it says.

Vancouver Island University president Deborah Saucier said that "false claims of Indigenous ancestry cause harm to Indigenous Peoples."

“This is why VIU’s future policy on Indigenous identity will honour the contributions of Indigenous students, faculty, staff and community leaders and will include safeguards to confirm Indigenous identity going forward.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2023.

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