Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot | Image source: Paul Joseph/University of British Columbia
Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot (Anishinaabe/Lake Superior) has been appointed to the prestigious position of United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP). She will be the first Indigenous woman from Canada to be so. Lightfoot will be bringing her extensive academic research experience with a focus on grassroots Indigenous human rights and politics to the position to support the implementation of Indigenous human rights in a more practical way that will affect Indigenous communities on a more local level. Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine got to talk with Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot just before the announcement was made public on the changes she hopes to bring about in her newly appointed role and to Indigenous communities.
EC: Congratulations on your appointment as the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What does it feel like to be appointed to such an important position? And what are you excited most about with this new opportunity?
SL: I would say I am incredibly grateful and humbled to be given this opportunity to bring forward Indigenous perspectives from Canada into the United Nations and to pick up this work at that level. I am incredibly humbled because my predecessor in this role is Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild who was a TRC commissioner, he was the last Canadian to sit on the Expert Mechanism. I am incredibly honoured and humbled to pick up the work with them where he left off. It’s also very exciting because it appears that I’m the first Indigenous woman from Canada to be seated in any of the three Indigenous rights Mechanisms at the United Nations. That’s very exciting and daunting as well because it’s a big role to fill. Most importantly I’m looking forward to these three years of work to help translate both in Canada and in other countries what all of these rights affirmed and articulated in the declaration mean in practice on the ground. That’s where things will actually matter to people and to communities. I’m very excited to take up that work.
EC: Can you tell me more about what the role means to both Indigenous people and to the United Nations?
SL: What the work means to the United Nations: this is the panel of Experts and there are seven, one from each of the UN’s geographic regions: North America, Latin America, the Arctic, Africa and so on, coming together to advise the human rights council on Indigenous people’s human rights, again translation into practice around the world, that is incredibly important work, especially at this juncture in history. And to build Indigenous voices on that table is incredibly significant and important. That’s actually where the meaning for Indigenous people come in. It’s my hope to bring Indigenous grassroots perspectives into those conversations and inform those conversations so that the decisions made there, and the recommendations made in the United Nations are informed by real experiences of Indigenous peoples on the ground.
EC: You also want to prioritize language preservation and revitalization in Indigenous communities. Can you give me some insight on what some of those strategies may look like?
SL: I say that’s my priority for a couple of reasons. The international year on Indigenous languages was 2019. We are on the cusp of beginning the international decade on Indigenous languages at the United Nations. Those are golden opportunities to both raise awareness and increase some programming and resources money back on the ground both provincially and nationally here in Canada, but also around the world. The fact that it’s already a UN priority- I want to highlight that. At the same time, the pandemic has taught us that the need to pay special attention to Indigenous language revitalization is even more present.
There are a couple of lessons coming out of the pandemic that makes this an even more important conversation to be having. First of all, we all know we have lost a huge amount of Elders tragically too early in the pandemic. Many have passed on, others have the long tail of COVID so their health is damaged now in ways that it will be difficult to recover from. That isn’t all, in the pandemic we’ve also experienced in our social isolation and distancing a lack of contact on a daily basis between knowledge keepers, language speakers, and our young ones. Grandparents and grandchildren have not been able to spend time together in the same way it happened before the pandemic. That’s a whole year lost. That can actually cause a language that was already in danger to be even more in danger in a short period of time. Those are compelling reasons to make this one of our top priorities moving into the next period.
My role on that won’t be implementing, but making policy recommendations and increasing communications so those in policy and decision-making roles understand the urgency. Here in Canada, we have language legislation now. Bringing that forward, adding some resources to it, making sure it’s high on the priority list. Coming out of COVID there are going to be lots of societal priorities. We need to make sure that as Indigenous peoples that ours s stay high on the agenda.
EC: In Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first term he went back on his campaign promise to implement UNDRIP. Now that you are working for the United Nations is that something you see yourself advocating for?
SL: Absolutely. By taking the seat on Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, not just Canada that becomes a focus, it’s every nation. That’s part of the logic as well of having an expert from each region is that we collectively advocate for full implementation in every country. Canada is particularly of interest to everyone because the commitments made were so strong. The world is watching what Canada is doing in practice, in policy because it does set a tone for the rest of the world. The stakes here are very high. I know from my contacts around the world that all eyes are on Canada right now.
EC: As an academic, your work and research have focused on many aspects of Indigenous human rights and politics. How do you hope to carry on that work with the United Nations?
SL: There are a lot of synergies between what I’ve been doing as an academic and my work
at EMPRIP. I’ve held a Canada research chair position since 2013 at UBC. This means I’ve had a bit of extra time and resources to do a bit of additional research in the University setting. I’ve been working with communities both in Canada and Internationally that all have their eyes on translating high-level commitments on Indigenous rights into actual practice and policy on the ground. That has been the focus of my academic work for the last 7/8 years at least. In many ways, this is taking that same work into a new venue, the United Nations. I hope to bring a bit more dialogue into the scene so that there is a little bit more information and communication flows between Geneva, New York and here on the ground in Canada.