Could UNESCO cultural list help safeguard Indigenous heritage in Canada?

Click to play video: 'Could UNESCO cultural list help safeguard Indigenous heritage in Canada?'
Could UNESCO cultural list help safeguard Indigenous heritage in Canada?
WATCH: Canada has not signed onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention with more than 700 recognized entries, and many Indigenous advocates are calling on the federal government for a change. Neetu Garcha reports – Apr 12, 2024

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the United States, Australia, and New Zealand were signatories. They are not. This story has been updated with the correction.

From Neapolitan pizza and Belgian beer culture to Arabic coffee, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list serves as a guardian of globally cherished traditions.

However, Canada is not a signatory to the 2003 UNESCO convention. Indigenous advocates like Karen Aird are hoping to change that by garnering momentum for enhanced protection of heritage.

Aird, a dedicated advocate for preserving Indigenous culture, highlights the value of intangible heritage.

“It’s everything that defines us as Indigenous people. It’s also incredibly vital for the wellness and survival of Indigenous people,” said Aird, manager of culture and heritage for First Peoples Cultural Council, a B.C. Crown corporation that works with Indigenous communities to revitalize and protect their heritage.

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She said an example of the kind of intangible Indigenous heritage which needs better protection is oral histories, passed down through generations, such as the story behind what’s known as Balancing Rock.

Sťuxwtéws/Bonaparte First Nation Chief Frank Antoine said Balancing Rock is a sacred site steeped in history and tradition. Global News

In the heart of British Columbia’s Interior, nestled within the landscape of Skeetchestn and Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc Traditional Lands, Balancing Rock is a testament to the resilience and unity of Indigenous peoples.

Sťuxwtéws/Bonaparte First Nation Chief Frank Antoine said it is a sacred site steeped in history and tradition. Antoine reflected on the struggles and victories of his ancestors, emphasizing the importance of preserving this cultural heritage for future generations.

“That particular rock kind of brings that story together. But it’s that, the hardships we did have with our neighbours back in the day. We did have big wars,” Antoine said.

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Antoine underscored the critical importance of collaboration and knowledge-sharing in preserving Indigenous cultural heritage.

“We actually work in a circle. So everybody in a circle or equal, no matter what your title is, whether you’re a chief or an elder or a youth, we all share the same knowledge and we all share that same experience, but we’re trying to pass on those experiences,” Antoine said.

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He emphasized the traditional Indigenous approach of working in a circle, where all members are equal and contribute to the collective wisdom. Highlighting the struggles of navigating colonial systems, Antoine advocates for a shift towards inclusive preservation efforts that honour Indigenous perspectives.

“The struggle for me is when being a chief and when you work with the government system, it’s basically who owns it. There’s a winner and a loser, and that should never be in our language,” he said.

What is intangible heritage?

Aird is calling for greater recognition and support for initiatives like UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List and government funding, stressing the need for safeguarding Indigenous heritage in the face of challenges and stressing the intrinsic value of intangible heritage in Indigenous communities.

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From the intricate knitting of Cowichan sweaters to the solemnity of Raven burials in ceremonies, Aird said these traditions represent cultural expressions and inherited traditions that continue to shape Indigenous identity.

“Especially with Covid, we’ve lost a lot of our elders and knowledge keepers, which are our libraries,” Aird said, highlighting the challenges faced by Indigenous communities in preserving their cultural heritage.

Click to play video: 'Wanuskewin continues journey toward UNESCO designation'
Wanuskewin continues journey toward UNESCO designation

Despite Canada’s involvement with non-governmental organizations advising on cultural heritage, it remains unsigned to UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Agnieszka Pawlowska-Mainville, UNESCO chair in Living Heritage and Sustainable Livelihoods, highlighted the need for greater understanding and recognition of intangible cultural heritage at the national level.

“Normally only countries that have ratified the 2003 UNESCO convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage are the ones that can actually nominate an element from their own nations to the UNESCO list,” she said.

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Pawlowska-Mainville pointed out the framework provided by UNESCO and emphasized the benefits of ratifying the convention for Indigenous communities.

“I think the fact that it’s been such a popular convention for countries across the world is because we’re all struggling in the same way. I think families from two sides of the world, two seemingly opposite sides of the cultures, are both saying that our children may not speak our language, our practices, our traditions or crafts are diminishing,” she said.

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Lucas dos Santos Roque, an intangible cultural heritage specialist, echoed the sentiment, and said the  impact of ratifying the convention for Indigenous communities could be transformative.

“Indigenous communities are fighting for their intangible heritage, despite the fact they don’t use this term or this concept. Indigenous cultures are totally based in these intangible aspects and they are fighting to preserve that,” he said.

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“Canada has a lot of, the, work to guarantee intangible cultural heritage safeguarding and also to make this policies more clear here in Canada.”

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In a statement from Canadian Heritage, the department clarified Ottawa’s position on the 2003 UNESCO Convention regarding intangible cultural heritage.

“While Canada remains committed to the protection and preservation of intangible cultural heritage, Canada currently has no plans to consider joining the 2003 UNESCO Convention. In addition, any decision to join the Convention would be subject to Parliamentary approval,” the statement said.

Emphasizing a community-based approach, Canada Heritage highlighted its ongoing efforts to support, promote, and safeguard intangible cultural heritage at the grassroots level. It said various funding programs are in place to aid communities, groups, and individuals across the country in these endeavours.

“Canada’s provinces and territories promote intangible cultural heritage, including the introduction of legislation and policies to protect and promote local living heritage,” the statement said.

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“The Convention as adopted provides little flexibility for Canada to manage an approach best suited to Canada’s multicultural context and shared jurisdiction over culture. The broad scope of what is considered to be intangible cultural heritage under the Convention intersects with intellectual property rights, copyright and Indigenous rights,” the department added.

Canadian Heritage added while Canada maintains its commitment to cultural heritage preservation, its decision to remain outside the UNESCO Convention reflects a distinct approach focused on local engagement and support.

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