By Howard Levitt
In positions of authority or fiduciary positions, any dishonesty can be cause for discharge because integrity is fundamental to the position itself
The controversy circling Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the prominent professor and former judge whose claims of native ancestry have been challenged in a series of CBC reports, is certainly stirring up similar outrage.
When her father’s parents’ white ancestry was pointed out by the CBC, Turpel-Lafond then reverted to the claim that he had actually been adopted from a Cree family. Last week, the CBC reported it had found her father’s birth certificate, which showed that William Turpel was born in Victoria as the natural-born son of British parents, rather than an adopted Cree boy, as Turpel-Lafond had, without evidence, claimed. Turpel-Lafond did not reply to the CBC’s inquiries on these points.
Simpson decried that Turpel-Lafond has appropriated the histories of aboriginals, who she says have the lowest life expectancies of anyone in Canada, are the most raped, most endangered and have now lost more of their children to foster homes than to the infamous residential schools.
To Simpson, allegations of appropriation against many high-profile North Americans, including filmmaker Michelle Latimer, author Joseph Boyden and U.S. university professor Elizabeth Hoover, “remind us the embrace that should have been extended to people affected by this discrimination is offered now to those who appropriate those effects as their own”
When this story first broke a month ago, the response of many aboriginal groups was to support Turpel-Lafond, who had done so much good work for their community. But as more facts emerge, some aboriginal leaders are distancing themselves from that initial support, including Cindy Blackstock, a renowned First Nations scholar who was just named Chancellor of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) University. Blackstock had previously noted that “Turpel-Lafond’s career accomplishments had added credibility because of her claims of being an Indigenous person herself.”
What employment law issues arise from this sad story?
It is also the case that in positions of authority or fiduciary positions, any dishonesty can be cause for discharge because integrity is fundamental to the position itself. That is why, for example, cause often occurs, not because of the misconduct which is investigated, which may not be serious enough to be cause for discharge, but because the employee lied to the employer during that investigation.
But there is another employment law issue: Turpel-Lafond is presently a Professor of Law at UBC’s law school. Integrity is fundamental to the reputation of the law school and lawyers are required to act with integrity and can be disciplined by Law Societies for failing to do so.
One would think that UBC has a difficult decision. It will be telling how it responds. So do the universities which provided her honorary degrees and are now reconsidering them. If UBC’s reputation is affected among its students, alumni, funders or the broader community by dishonest actions of any employee, that can be cause for that employee’s discharge. If any employee, particularly one in a public position, behaves dishonourably so as to bring embarrassment to their employer, that too can be cause.
Increasingly in my practice, employer clients are meeting with me to discuss the dismissal for cause of high-profile executives who conduct themselves so as to bring dishonour or embarrassment to their organization. That is, perhaps, the most rapidly increasingly cause for discharge that I am seeing across this country.