Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Sometimes a good shaming is all you've got

It's hard to talk about Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. 

I fully believe that the right thing is happening to her as she is held up to the searing light that the CBC's Geoff Leo has shone on her fictions. Pretending to be someone you're not feels especially egregious when high-privilege people fake low-privilege backgrounds. 

I am completely on the side of the betrayed Indigenous women who have had to experience a champion from within turning out to be nothing of the sort. All the worse that Turpel-Lafond purported to speak for them, and to have walked that same difficult road to success that Indigenous people so routinely have had to walk.

But it's still hard to watch. For a settler like me, it's also hard to talk about with my settler acquaintances. I can feel the grand discomfort we feel at watching a person whose past work we still admire experiencing a profound public shaming. 

We engage on the subject ever so carefully, tip-toeing around the astonishing betrayal and in the end, not saying much at all. I have exactly one non-Indigenous friend who I can fully engage with on the shocking subject of Turpel-Lafond, and we put our heads down and talk in low voices as if to hide that we've got strong thoughts on the matter.

And yet, these modern versions of a public stoning are important things to bear witness to. We do need to publicly shame those who engage in such blatant frauds. We do need to talk about the massive betrayal, and to reflect on and share the pieces that Indigenous women are writing about how this has impacted them.

Humiliation is both the way we punish and the way we deter when it comes to faking. It's literally the only way to punish those who come from privilege and fake an underprivileged back story - surely one of the most offensive kinds of fakery, given that the faker lays claim to space, key positions, prestige, money and air time that are routinely denied to underprivileged groups. 

And aren't there just a lot of fakers? That's what is really sinking in for me lately. Fake nurses, fake experts, fake college degrees, so many scammers. Grandparents scammed by fake grandsons. Whole police departments duped by modern-day snake-oil salesmen selling fake post-traumatic stress credentials.

Not that I think of Turpel-Lafond as a scammer. Her fakery feels so bizarre and recklessly self-destructive that my thoughts go toward her mental health instead. I have met people in both my personal and professional lives who have told themselves a made-up story for so long that they somehow come to believe it. 

I don't know if that's the case for her, but what else can explain the crazy risk she took by creating a persona and credentials that didn't belong to her? Did she think about this moment, when it all would fall apart and suddenly all would be revealed? 

Now we are left to reconsider everything Turpel-Lafond accomplished in her many significant years in high-profile positions. None of it is work that should be discounted automatically now that the truth is out, but I can't help but wonder how all of that work might have turned out had a real Indigenous person done it.

It's obvious that Indigenous people are struggling to talk about this one as well. The Union of BC Indian Chiefs issued a statement last fall confirming their support for Turpel-Lafond, who they described as a “fierce, ethical and groundbreaking advocate for Indigenous peoples for decades.”

They contended that issues of First Nations identity are for Indigenous peoples, families and governments to sort through based on their laws, customs and traditions, and condemned the initial CBC stories as “digging into private matters.”

But as other Indigenous people have repeatedly emphasized, she could have been that same fierce advocate without faking her background. Being a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights does not require that one pretends to be Indigenous.

Which Indigenous people went uncelebrated for their own contributions while Turpel-Lafond was receiving 11 honorary degrees under false pretences? 

Who might have authored the report into systemic racism toward Indigenous people in BC's health care system had that prestigious and well-paid work not gone to Turpel-Lafond? 

Who might have been the genuinely Indigenous representative for BC children and youth in a province where Indigenous children continue to be vastly over-represented in child apprehensions? What might they have done with a decade of their own in that vital position? 

What important perspectives from lived experience have been missed entirely in all of her work? What depths of wisdom went untapped because privileged space was taken up by somebody who hadn't had the life she said she'd had?

These things matter. In an era so fake that we can't even believe the things we see with our own eyes, authenticity of the person has never been more important. 

I feel for Turpel-Lafond in what must surely be an exquisitely painful time. But her deception has shaken the foundations of every good thing she did. We have all been hurt by her fakery, and Indigenous people most of all. 

Here's a November 2022 piece from the same CBC writer, this one on the report from Metis lawyer Jean Teillet on another Indigenous faker, Carrie Bourassa. 

People who pretend to be Indigenous feed off the ignorance of the non-Indigenous population, notes Teillet. "The fraudsters enact stereotypes they know will be recognized by the non-Indigenous audience. There is often silent and resentful recognition by Indigenous people that the performance is a stereotyped image of themselves."


Anonymous said...

Great piece on this challenging issue of fakery & it’s impact for the Indigenous community. Thanks for being brave enough to write it.

Anonymous said...

The Cumberland Kid writes again! Yay!!
This article should be in the Tyee and Maclean’s. It’s thoughtful, heartful and cleansing to read this. Thankyou Jody. DJF

Unknown said...

Thank you Jody for taking the time to share your thoughts. I appreciate the questions you are asking and they are ones that all of us should be considering.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for having the courage to speak to this very disturbing and unsettling matter that has caused pain to those indigenous women who have struggled so hard for to have a voice; let alone to be heard.
It is so sad and feels unspeakable.
Sandra Micheals

Anonymous said...

Well written Jody. A difficult topic. Thanks for your courage and insight.

Unknown said...

Talking about fakers, the last time I braved family (Supreme) Court, I asked my lawyer to ask the Judge if he had read my affidavit...after a pause he repliced "no". My lawyer then asked him to take a break and and do so. After a while he returned and nobody asked him if he had read the affidavit. I guess it was (falsely?) assumed that he had read it! I am still a loving father despite being treated this but I am still disgusted with the way our children are treated in the Courts.