Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Aki-Kwe, receives Order of Canada

December 29, 2021

The Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre’s Academic Director Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Aki-Kwe, has been appointed an Officer to the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian awards.

Created in 1967, the Order of Canada recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to community, and service to the country. Appointments are made by the governor general on the recommendation of the Advisory Council for the Order of Canada and honour those who have helped to build a better nation. 

Dr. Turpel-Lafond is recognized for her “ongoing commitment to improving the child welfare system and supports for Indigenous people in British Columbia.”

“I am honoured to be among so many esteemed individuals – many of them friends and colleagues—and gratified to think that the work we have done is making a difference to society as a whole,” Says Dr. Turpel-Lafond. “At the same time, I’m humbled by the contributions and experiences of former residential school students, and those who’ve encountered racism and abuse within our healthcare or child welfare systems, who are speaking their truths. There are so many people deserving of recognition, and I hold my hands up to their bravery.”

A member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and mother of four, Dr. Turpel-Lafond is a renowned judge, lawyer and advocate for children’s and Indigenous human rights. In addition to her position as Academic Director for the Centre, she is a professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law and senior associate counsel at Woodward and Company legal firm. She has appeared before all levels of courts in Canada, including the Supreme Court of Canada, and as a scholar has published widely in the areas of Indigenous human rights and constitutional law. 

In 1998, Dr. Turpel-Lafond became the first Indigenous woman appointed to the Provincial Court in Saskatchewan. As a criminal law judge in youth and adult courts, she worked to develop partnerships to better serve the needs of young people in the justice system, particularly those who had been sexually exploited or had disabilities such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

From 2006 to 2016, she served as British Columbia’s first Representative for Children and Youth. As an independent officer of the Legislature, she supported children, youth, and families who required assistance when dealing with the child welfare system. Within the ten-year term, her office handled thousands of cases and produced more than 200 recommendations to ameliorate the system, the majority of which were implemented. 

Dr. Turpel-Lafond assumed her role as Director of the IRSHD Centre in 2018 and has advocated tirelessly for Survivors to have access to the complete truth of the Indian Residential School System. Working with national media outlets, she was successful recently in obtaining and making available dozens of records, previously tied up in the courts, pertaining to the Catholic church’s obligations under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA).

In 2020, she led an independent review into racism, stereotyping and discrimination against Indigenous peoples in the B.C. health care system. Based on interviews with nearly 9,000 individuals, the review resulted in the publication of the In Plain Sight report, which documents clear evidence of anti-Indigenous racism in the healthcare system, and makes several recommendations.

Dr. Turpel-Lafond holds a doctorate of law from Harvard Law School, a master’s degree in international law from Cambridge University, a law degree from Osgoode Hall, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton University. She also holds a certificate in the international and comparative law of human rights from the University of Strasbourg in France and has received honorary doctorates from seven universities. In 2007, the Indigenous Bar Association designated her an Indigenous Peoples’ Counsel. 

Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Global Leaders of Tomorrow in 1994 and a Canadian Leader for the 21st Century in 1999. In 2009, she was awarded the Bill McFarland Award from the Parent Support Services Society of British Columbia for her outstanding commitment to the prevention of child abuse, and in 2010 she was awarded the Perry Shawana Award from the BC Aboriginal Childcare Society for championing the rights of children. Also in 2010, the Vancouver Sun recognized her as one of BC’s top 100 most influential women.

See the full list of 2021 Order of Canada appointments.