UBC's Sheryl Lightfoot appointed UN representative for the rights of Indigenous Peoples

·3 min read
Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot is a Canada Research Chair and associate professor at UBC who specializes in Indigenous people's rights. She co-led the development of the university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan, which launched in 2020. (University of Briish Columbia - image credit)
Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot is a Canada Research Chair and associate professor at UBC who specializes in Indigenous people's rights. She co-led the development of the university’s Indigenous Strategic Plan, which launched in 2020. (University of Briish Columbia - image credit)

UBC professor Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot has been appointed as a member of the United Nations committee to promote and protect the rights of Indigenous people.

It's the first time an Indigenous woman from Canada will hold the position of North American representative on the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"It's very exciting to be taking this step at this particular time. It's also very humbling because I'm following in the footsteps of some very prestigious leaders, particularly Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild," said Lightfoot on CBC's On The Coast.

The committee is made up of seven independent global experts who are tasked with advising states on implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

"We're trying to bring expertise from around the world, from these different regions, academia, law, advocacy and the human rights world, and to bring our thoughts on how to make Indigenous human rights into reality on the ground," she said.

The 46 articles of UNDRIP affirm the rights of Indigenous people to live in dignity, maintain their culture and participate in government decision-making, among other things.

Lightfoot says one of her main concerns in her new role will be the preservation and revitalization of Indigenous languages, some of which have been pushed "to the brink of extinction" by the COVID-19 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," she said in her statement from UBC.

Lightfoot says her first step will be to consult Indigenous leaders across Canada and the United States.

The associate professor at UBC's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs is one of the world's leading experts in global Indigenous rights and politics, according to the statement.

Lightfoot is Anishinaabe from the Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe and enrolled at the Keweenaw Bay community in Michigan. She is a dual Canadian and American citizen.

The first in her family to attend university and a three-generation survivor of residential schools, Lightfoot says she's always seen education as a tool to support her family and her community.

"It's been a long road coming out of a very marginalized position," she 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."

Action plan on UNDRIP

In December, the federal government tabled Bill C-15 in the House of Commons to chart a path forward for implementing the individual and collective rights set out in UNDRIP.

In 2019, B.C. became the first government in North America to pass legislation to implement the declaration. However, more than a year later, Indigenous leaders have criticized the delay in coming up with an action plan.

"How do we take those high level UN commitments and make them reality on the ground in practice and in policy, and in many respects, the world is watching British Columbia. This is one of the active testing grounds," Lightfoot said.

Listen to Sheryl Lightfoot's interview on CBC's On The Coast: