ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador agreed to spend $13,800 on outside public relations help as questions arose about its former president’s claims of Indigenous heritage.
A contract obtained through access-to-information legislation shows National Public Relations offered the university’s board of regents “communications counsel around a sensitive issue involving its president.” The signed contract is dated March 10, two days after CBC News published an investigation scrutinizing Vianne Timmons’s claims of Mi’kmaq ancestry.
“We have worked with private and public sector organizations, including universities across the country, to navigate allegations of misrepresentation or misconduct directed at leadership,” National said in the document, responding to a request from Memorial. The firm offered media monitoring and communications help from a team that included its vice-president of issues and crisis management, at an estimated cost of $13,800.
National said its approach would protect the university’s reputation, though details of the firm’s plan and the budget were redacted.
In an email, Memorial spokesperson Michelle Osmond said the board contracted National “to provide independent advice and support,” adding that she could not immediately say how much the university ended up paying the company.
The CBC News report raised questions about Timmons’s claims that her father’s great-great-grandmother was Mi’kmaq. Timmons issued an apology shortly after, saying she regretted “any hurt or confusion sharing (her) story may have caused.” On March 13, she announced she would take a paid six-week leave of absence, but on April 6, the board of regents announced her contract had been ended.
Timmons is among several high-profile Canadian academics whose claims of Indigenous heritage have recently been challenged.
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association in March revoked an award it had given former judge and law professor Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, saying it believed she “falsified her claims to Cree ancestry.” Several schools, including McGill University, have rescinded honorary degrees awarded to Turpel-Lafond, and she has returned honorary degrees from Simon Fraser University and Brock University.
Last summer, Carrie Bourassa resigned from her position as a health professor at the University of Saskatchewan after a CBC report raised doubts about her claims of being Metis.
Timmons has said she never claimed to be Indigenous, just to have Indigenous heritage. However, for years she listed membership with the unrecognized Bras d’Or Mi’kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia in her professional credentials. The group is not recognized as a First Nation by the federal or Nova Scotia governments.
Timmons took office at Memorial in April 2020 with a five-year contract and an annual base salary of $450,000. Her contract says that if it is ended without cause — as was the case in her removal — she is entitled to $675,000 in severance pay and payments for administrative leave and other benefits worth at least $270,000.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2023.