UBC's Sheryl Lightfoot the first Indigenous Canadian woman appointed to prestigious UN body

The third-generation residential-school survivor wants to preserve Indigenous languages

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      UBC associate professor Sheryl Lightfoot has become the first Indigenous woman from Canada to be named to a prestigious United Nations body.

      As the North American representative on the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), Lightfoot and six other international experts will assist the UN's Human Rights Council (HRC) in helping member states achieve the goals of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

      “I am incredibly grateful and humbled by this opportunity to help advance the rights of Indigenous Peoples around the world through this work for the UN Expert Mechanism,” Lightfoot said in a March 24 UBC release. “I’m also honoured to be following in the footsteps of my predecessor, Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild.

      “I’d like to see Indigenous human rights become as common sense and taken for granted as other human rights are, so that it would be unthinkable to violate them."

      Lightfoot, who is Anishinaabe and a member of the Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe, is UBC's Canada Research Chair in Global Indigenous Rights and Politics, an associate professor in political science-Indigenous studies with the school of public policy and global affairs, and is senior advisor to the president on Indigenous affairs at UBC.

      "Dr. Lightfoot is a leading voice in actively advancing the human rights of Indigenous peoples, not only on the UBC campuses but across Canada and around the world,” UBC president and vice-chancellor Santa J. Ono said in the release. “We look forward to supporting her with this important work, which also aligns with UBC’s commitment to supporting Indigenous peoples’ human rights, as outlined in our recently launched Indigenous Strategic Plan."

      Lightfoot, a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., was born in northern Michigan and is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Community there. She is also a third-generation survivor of residential schools.

      "It’s been a hard road, but the way I was brought up is that the way to bring yourself up out of poverty and marginalization is through education, and once you have that education, then you have a responsibility to give back and help the community,” Lightfood said. “Everything I do is with my family’s residential-school legacy in mind—to try to answer the question of what can we create for our collective present and our future that is better than our past."

      The UN General Asssembly passed UNDRIP in 2007, and B.C. adopted the declaration into law in 2019. Canada voted against UNDRIP in 2007 and tabled Bill C-15—proposed legislation to "provide a framework" to fully implement UNDRIP—in December 2020.

      The HRC established EMRIP in 2007 and appoints the seven members. The Geneva, Switzerland-based body holds annual five-day sessions.

      Lightfoot said the preservation of Indigenous languages will be one of her priorities in the new position, especially during the global pandemic.

      “Not only was there a tragic physical loss of elders and knowledge-keepers during the pandemic, which in many cases is the strength of language left in Nations, but then in addition to that, there was the loss of regular and ongoing contact between elders and younger people within Nations. In some cases, the pandemic has pushed several additional languages to the brink of extinction just in the last year.”

      In an interview published by UBC's school of public policy and global affairs after her appointment, Lightfoot elaborated on her ideas of implementing Indigenous human rights in Canada and the rest of the world.

      "The biggest challenge is moving forward with implementation in a concrete and consistent way, in practice," Lightfoot explained.

      "What we’ve seen so far in Canada, as well as globally, is often high-level verbal and/or written commitments, followed by a struggle to implement those commitments consistently and fully. There tends to be a troubling spectrum of variation in actual implementation. We see in the news some clear cases of successful implementation, from comanagement to partnerships and other creative activities that are all positive, but then we also see disturbing infractions and violations of Indigenous human rights everywhere.

      "These two realities coexist," Lightfoot continued. "I’d like to see a future where the disturbing practices simply cease to exist, and we have better consistency and clarity around the practice of implementation...

      "At present, Indigenous human rights, which are inherent human rights, are still contestable, and up for debate in policy circles—and I think that is unacceptable."