As an Anishinaabe kid growing up in urban Minneapolis, Sheryl Lightfoot had at least two memorable influences in her life.
The first was her mother, a single parent without a university degree who insisted that her children get a postsecondary education.
The second was the American Indian Movement, a civil-rights group founded in Minneapolis in 1968 that gave the young girl – now a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver – a window into the worlds of politics, activism and Indigenous rights.
Those threads recently came together for Dr. Lightfoot, with her appointment to a United Nations group designed to help member countries meet the goals of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
“The folks that I was around from a very young age were the ones who originally went to the United Nations in the 1970s,” Dr. Lightfoot said in an interview, referring to activists who pushed for Indigenous voices at the global gathering.
“So this has been a long time coming.”
As a new member of the UN Expert Mechanism, Dr. Lightfoot will be part of a seven-member group that provides expertise and advice on Indigenous peoples’ rights. The Expert Mechanism is an advisory body that focuses on developing solutions and best practices in specific areas. In 2020, for example, it released a report on the repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains.
The circumstances of each case may vary from country to country, the thinking goes, but the Expert Mechanism is designed to take lessons learned from communities and institutions around the world and distill them into something that might become a template for future cases.
Dr. Lightfoot sees a potential similar role for the Expert Mechanism in Canada, which is grappling with UNDRIP and its implications.
“I would actually like to see the Expert Mechanism get more involved in Canada, because we are facing struggles,” Dr. Lightfoot said late last month in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
“On the one hand, it is a positive advancement that B.C. and Canada are making these commitments. But turning those commitments into practice is much more complicated and highly controversial.
“So I think it could be helpful in some of these particularly difficult arenas … to get some international perspective in how these difficult issues are being worked through in other countries and in other spaces.”
UNDRIP has been part of a global dialogue on Indigenous rights since the UN adopted it in 2007. Justin Trudeau made implementing UNDRIP part of his campaign platform in 2015, in line with a recommendation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the same year.
In 2019, British Columbia became the first Canadian jurisdiction to pass legislation to implement UNDRIP. The B.C. law sets out a process to align existing provincial laws with the UN declaration, but the details – how mining exploration laws, for example, might be tweaked or reformed – are to be worked out over time.
The federal government in December, 2020, introduced a bill to implement UNDRIP, but it has not yet passed.
Ottawa introduced its legislation over the objections of some provinces, which in a November, 2019, letter to the federal government called for more time to discuss the bill and its implications.
Some Indigenous groups have also flagged concerns. In a March 10, 2021, submission to the parliamentary standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs, the O’Chiese First Nation, based in Alberta, called the bill “mere symbolism” that would create a vaguely worded framework rather than actually implementing UNDRIP.
In a separate submission to the committee, dated March 18, the Mining Association of Canada outlined concerns related to the concept of free, prior and informed consent, a key concept in UNDRIP.
“What remains unclear is whether existing processes for Indigenous engagement relating to projects may be changed and if so in what circumstances,” the MAC said in its submission. “It is also unclear how the government intends to deal with situations when efforts to obtain consent have not been successful or when consent is provided by some affected Indigenous communities but not all.”
The parliamentary committee announced plans to study the legislation, Bill C-15, last month and is taking submissions until April 8.
In the meantime, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has called on Canada to pause construction of several projects over issues related to free, prior and informed consent.
CERD raised concerns about the Trans Mountain expansion, the Site C dam and the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in a 2019 decision statement and in a follow-up letter in November, 2020.
The Trans Mountain project, owned by the federal government since 2018, would nearly triple the capacity of an existing pipeline system between Alberta and the B.C. Coast. It has faced significant opposition from some First Nation groups.
Site C, now under construction, is a B.C. government hydroelectric project on the Peace River that has been plagued by cost overruns and construction problems and faces a legal challenge from the West Moberly First Nations.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline, to be operated by TC Energy Corp., is meant to carry natural gas from northeastern B.C. to an LNG terminal in Kitimat. The elected councils of 20 bands along the pipeline route support the project. But Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs oppose the pipeline, which would cross their traditional, unceded territory.
CERD is a monitoring committee for an international treaty and separate from the Expert Mechanism, Dr. Lightfoot emphasized.
Still, she said, Canada has an obligation to address concerns raised by CERD.
However, UN member responses to CERD, under the “urgent action procedure” referred to in the November letter, are confidential, Global Affairs spokeswoman Patricia Skinner said in an e-mail.
As the debate over UNDRIP continues, Dr. Lightfoot said her first step in her new role will be to connect with Indigenous leaders in Canada and the United States to discuss priorities, including preservation of Indigenous languages.
That’s an issue close to her heart: She speaks only a little Ojibwe and Dakota, but isn’t fluent, reflecting her mother and grandparents attending residential schools and a gradual loss of language skills.
She is a dual Canadian and American citizen, from the Lake Superior band of Ojibwe and a member of the Keweenaw Bay Community in northern Michigan.
As a child, she had relatives and friends on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border and moved easily between the two countries.
She values dialogue and seeking common ground and says Canada is not alone when it comes to overhauling colonial laws and systems. That process is arduous, time-consuming and difficult, but opens the door to increased certainty for Indigenous people, investors and governments, she says.
Failing to address UNDRIP in a meaningful way poses far more risk than adopting it, she says. “If we want to maintain our credibility abroad, we can also, as Canadians, be on the forefront of discussions of solutions that bring an end to that uncertainty and do it in a human-rights based way.”
That will also be a marketable approach that gives Canada a competitive advantage, she says.
“I see it as a short-term uncertainty that also becomes a long-term opportunity.”
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