Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot appointed United Nations chair on Indigenous peoples’ rights

The announcement marks the first time an Indigenous woman from Canada has been appointed to the prestigious position.

Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot

Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot, a world expert on global Indigenous politics and professor at the University of British Columbia, has been named the chair of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The announcement marks the first time an Indigenous woman from Canada has been appointed to the prestigious position. The last time a Canadian held the position was in 2012 when Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild was appointed chair.

“I’m excited but it’s also very daunting,” says Dr. Lightfoot. “As the world has emerged out of the pandemic lockdowns, Indigenous issues have really emerged at the forefront around the world. These issues have existed for a long time but the impacts of the pandemic were often harder on Indigenous people and Indigenous rights. We have a lot of work to do to address this.”

Dr. Lightfoot adds that the appointment is especially important for Canada as it is “recognition of the country’s leadership role in the declaration and implementation of the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

The Expert Mechanism, which is composed of seven independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council, is charged with providing expertise to the Human Rights Council. The mechanism also advises states in achieving the aims of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, which affirms Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, equality, and non-discrimination.

Dr. Lightfoot was first appointed as representative to the UN Expert Mechanism for a three-year term in 2021. A dual Canadian and American citizen, she is Anishinaabe from the Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe, enrolled at the Keweenaw Bay Community in northern Michigan.

At UBC, Dr. Lightfoot is professor in the department of political science and the school of public policy and global affairs, and a faculty associate in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. She was the Canada Research Chair in Global Indigenous Rights and Politics from 2013 to 2023. From 2018 to 2023, she co-developed and led the implementation of UBC’s Indigenous Strategic Plan across UBC and has served as senior advisor to the president on Indigenous affairs. From 2022-2023, she also served as president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) and currently serves as its past-president.

A continuation of UBC’s commitment to Indigenous rights

For Dr. Lightfoot, a highlight of serving on the UN Expert Mechanism, is the learning opportunity it provides for her students at UBC. For example, some students recently had the opportunity to contribute to a UN report on the impacts of militarization on the rights of Indigenous peoples. They also helped organize a seminar on the topic that saw participation from 30 speakers from around the world.

“Many of my students came away from that saying it was one of the highlights of their entire university experience,” says Dr. Lightfoot. “This work is really a continuation of UBC’s commitment to supporting and advancing Indigenous human rights.”

In her new role as chair, Dr. Lightfoot says one of her goals is to work toward enhanced representation and participation for Indigenous governing bodies from around the world at the UN Human Rights Council in a way that is “fair, just and appropriate.”

“Even though we have seen some positive moves, we still have a long way to go,” she says. “This sort of systems change—seeking inclusion and justice for people who have been so marginalized for so long—is incredibly hard, but at the end of the day, we do this work with purpose and a lot of pride, with the knowledge that we continue the work of those who came before us.”

‘Service to our community’

As a third-generation intergenerational survivor of residential schools (her uncles, grandparents and great-grandmother were residential school survivors), Dr. Lightfoot says her appointment as chair of the UN Expert Mechanism is especially meaningful as she honours her late mother’s memory. Kathryn Jeanette Lightfoot passed away on May 5, 2022.

“It reminded me of how central service to our community is for my family and how much my mother did for the Indigenous community that was both seen and unseen over the course of her lifetime,” says Dr. Lightfoot. “It reminded me in a very poignant way why we do this work, which is to work collectively and to bring all the talents and gifts that we have to the table for the collective good for Indigenous peoples.”

Dr. Lightfoot still remembers the look of joy on her mother’s face during one of their last visits. Although her mom had not been responsive for a few days, Dr. Lightfoot says she gave her a “big, broad smile” after she told her she had to leave for a day to attend a UN meeting in New York.

“Now, whenever I head to meetings, I just remember that smile,” she says.