Sheryl Lightfoot, 1st Indigenous Canadian woman Canada appointed UN representative, on challenges she faces

Click to play video: 'UBC Professor looks to advance Indigenous rights in new role'
UBC Professor looks to advance Indigenous rights in new role
Sheryl Lightfoot is the first Indigenous woman from Canada to be appointed to the UN Expert Panel on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She talks about what she hopes to accomplish in her new role. – Mar 25, 2021

UBC professor Sheryl Lightfoot is the first Indigenous woman from Canada appointed as United Nations representative for the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Sheryl Lightfoot is tasked with implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) along with others on a global committee.

“I think I can help make a contribution, at this moment, to continue to translate high-level human rights principles in the declaration that applies to the entire world,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot explains that she wants to bring those principles into a concrete context for “all Indigenous peoples in every country, in every region.”

Click to play video: 'FSIN, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan ‘cautiously optimistic’ on Canada’s UNDRIP bill'
FSIN, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan ‘cautiously optimistic’ on Canada’s UNDRIP bill

“There are common threads of rights, directions and principles that should be followed, but how to translate them into each unique legal context and policy context is formidable,” says Lightfoot.

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Lightfoot explains that on the global level, Indigenous peoples face similar experiences, “no matter what the country is.”

“The common experiences, of course, are marked marginalization, poverty, and socio-economic gap,” says Lightfoot.

Lightfoot continues, explaining that, “It doesn’t stop there,” and lists more problems such as, “the loss of language through assimilative programs, extractive industry projects that are not taking Indigenous voices into account in their plans and in the implementation of their plans.”

“There are tremendous issues with the non-recognition of Indigenous legal orders and governance,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot shares that the “scale of the problems are so tremendous.”

When it comes to advancing Indigenous peoples’ human rights, Lightfoot finds that, “the policies, procedures, and practices that align with the various articles of the U.N. declaration are out of alignment.”

“There is much work to do to make sure that Indigenous peoples human rights are respected, on an equal basis to all other peoples,” says Lightfoot.

When it comes to helping to solve Indigenous issues, Lightfoot says, “the first step is building relationships.”

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“It also begins with conversations, because ultimately we get to solutions through dialogue and negotiation in most cases,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot explains that “we must be able and willing to engage in mutually respectful dialogue” about possible solutions to conflicts involving Indigenous human rights.

“Finding out what the issues are and what they [Indigenous peoples] think would be the solutions” is important to solving Indigenous issues, Lightfoot explains.

“One of my wise elders often says, ‘We don’t ever ask for our rights, we assert them.’ I think that is a very important message to keep forefront in our minds at all times. We must know our human rights and assert them in our day-to-day lives,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot encourages everyone to read and know the UN declaration.

Plan of action for UNDRIP

In 2019, British Columbia attracted international attention by introducing Bill 41 2019: the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act for first reading in the legislature, and passing it unanimously at this initial stage. However, more than a year later, Indigenous leaders are criticizing the delay for an action plan. 

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Bill 41 affirms the application of UNDRIP to provincial law, seeks to contribute to the implementation of UNDRIP, and supports the affirmation of, and development of relationships with, Indigenous governing bodies.

“How do we put our heads together and think through a complex issue, in order to give concrete advice about a policy direction or a policy shift or a new way to live together, work together near paradigm shift,” Lightfoot said. 

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