Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond joins UBC as head of residential school centre and professor of law

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a renowned Indigenous Canadian judge, lawyer and advocate for children and Indigenous restorative justice, has joined UBC as the inaugural director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) and as a professor with the Peter A. Allard School of Law.

Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC)

Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC). Credit: Paul Joseph/UBC

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a renowned Indigenous Canadian judge, lawyer and advocate for children and Indigenous restorative justice, has joined UBC as the inaugural director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre (IRSHDC) and as a professor with the Peter A. Allard School of Law.

Turpel-Lafond, or Aki-kwe, is Cree and Scottish with kinship ties in First Nations in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba. She is recognized internationally for her pioneering work as British Columbia’s first Representative for Children and Youth. During her decade of advocacy for children and youth, she worked with First Nations and Métis families and communities across British Columbia, and has deep connections with Elders, individuals and community leaders working to address the legacy of residential schools for children and youth today by reforming child welfare, language revitalization and criminal justice innovation.

As a lawyer and provincial judge, Turpel-Lafond has been involved in projects relating to improving supports for Indigenous peoples, especially in addressing the unique circumstances and needs of children and youth involved in the justice system. More recently, Turpel-Lafond has represented Canada in work with the United Nations to advance child welfare change and issues of concern to Indigenous peoples.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. Credit: Office of the Representative for Children and Youth

“Mary Ellen has been a tireless advocate for vulnerable children and for Indigenous rights in the legal system, making her the ideal candidate to lead the IRSHDC and an exemplary addition to the Allard School of Law,” said UBC President Santa J. Ono. “While the province’s Representative for Children and Youth, she was the voice for young people who were not able to speak up for themselves. As the director of IRSHDC, Mary Ellen will ensure that the voices and the experiences of people who suffered at Indian residential schools in their childhood for a century are articulated and understood.”

As director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, which officially opened on April 9, 2018, Turpel-Lafond will ensure the centre provides residential school survivors access to the records gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). She will coordinate programming for residential school survivors and initiatives to inform UBC faculty, staff, students and the public about the history and lasting effects of the Indian residential school system, and work with individuals, families and communities on addressing the continuing legacy of the schools. Her role will also assure that the centre fulfills its promise to serve as a leading location for the many forms of dialogue required to fully respond to the Calls to Action of the Canada Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“It is crucial that the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre be responsive to the needs, and reflect in a respectful way the lived experiences and trauma of residential school survivors. I am confident that Mary Ellen will honour survivors and ensure the centre contributes in a meaningful way to greater understanding of the effects of Indian residential schools have had on Indigenous communities and Canada as a whole,“ said Linc Kesler, strategic advisor to the president on aboriginal affairs and director of the First Nations House of Learning at UBC.

Turpel-Lafond will also join UBC as a professor with the Allard School of Law. Turpel-Lafond is a member of the Indigenous bar as well as the Law Societies of British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. She was a Saskatchewan Provincial Court judge for 20 years (1998-2018). She has served as a mediator and negotiator on land claims, Indigenous and human rights matters, and worked in public law litigation. She is the author of more than 50 published works and reports.

“Mary Ellen’s experience and vision will ensure that this Centre lives up to its promises to residential school survivors. All of us at Allard School of Law are also very excited to welcome Mary Ellen as a mentor and leader in our school,” said Catherine Dauvergne, Dean of the Allard School of Law.

Turpel-Lafond’s two roles at UBC mark a return to academic life. Early in her career, she was a tenured law professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie. She has also instructed in a number of law schools across Canada and the United States. Turpel-Lafond holds a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School, a master’s in international law from Cambridge University, a JD from Osgoode Hall at York University and a bachelor of arts degree from Carleton University.

“This opportunity to deepen the dialogue and respond to the legacy of residential schools is historic,” said Turpel-Lafond. “What happened with these schools, and the policies that permitted them to flourish, must never be forgotten or set-aside.

“The university community at UBC, the learning community nationally, and civil society, must continue to engage with survivors, families and communities on their experiences, thus ensuring the legacy is critically examined and intergenerational consequences are understood and addressed.  With understanding will come dialogue on necessary actions for recognizing and respecting Indigenous peoples’ human rights and the revitalization of Indigenous languages, education systems, laws, cultures and self-determination. The child welfare issues alone are a matter recognized recently by the Government of Canada as a humanitarian crisis experienced today but connected to the legacy of these schools.”

Turpel-Lafond has received numerous accolades for her work, including the International Society of Adoptable Children’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 for her work in promoting adoption and kinship placement in BC. That same year, she was also awarded the President’s Award from the BC Government Employees’ Union for her leadership around children’s services and human rights.

Turpel-Lafond started her role as a professor in the Allard School of Law on March 23 and assumes her director role on June 1.