Our Campus: Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot sees 'the pivotal moment' for Canada's Indigenous affairs is now

Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot has been involved in Indigenous activism her whole life.

Growing up in Minneapolis in an urban Indigenous neighborhood in the seventies, around the time of the Alcatraz and Wounded Knee occupations, Lightfoot got to see firsthand the burgeoning civil rights and Red Power movements.

“I would say, those early experiences through the seventies and the early part of the eighties were formative for me in crucial ways,” said Lightfoot.

“I saw not only radical politics, but also organizational grassroots organizing, often female-led organizational development and self-determination on the ground and in practice in really a push forward historically that we haven’t seen again since those early years.”

For her undergraduate degree, Lightfoot attended St. Olaf’s College before immediately going into a master’s program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She and her sister were the first in their family to get undergraduate and master’s degrees.

After graduating, Lightfoot immediately put her new skills to use for her people.

“I was working for language revitalization institute, I was working for a research and policy center, I was working for the job training center … Wherever I could put my skills to work, that’s what was asked of me and that’s what I did,” said Lightfoot.

Advancing education

After working within her community for 15 years, Lightfoot began to consider getting a PhD.

“I was involved in a number of research projects in the community — especially with one organization, which was the American Indian Policy Center. And I was chair of the board of that organization for about nine years. And it started to become clear and it was suggested by many that I should consider a PhD.”

So at the age of 38, Lightfoot went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

“I was 15 years older than everyone else in the cohort. But I have to appreciate that the political science [department] at University of Minnesota took that chance and made that investment in me because I was a very non-conventional student and non-traditional PhD student. So for them to take that risk was appreciated, and I tried not to disappoint.”

During her studies, Lightfoot maintained “a lens that always looked at Indigenous political struggles, Indigenous rights struggles, global politics for Indigenous peoples.”

At the end of her PhD, Lightfoot was recruited by UBC. At the time, the Aboriginal Strategic Plan was just starting to be implemented, and UBC had announced a variety of plans for Indigenous engagement.

“It was one of those chances that I took in life. So when I came here I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try this, I’ll see how it fits and I’ll stay here as long as it’s working.’ And it’s been 11 years now, so I think it’s working,” Lightfoot added with a laugh.

Old land, new rules

The transition to Canada from the US was relatively smooth. Lightfoot’s community, the Anishinaabe nation, once lived across the shores of Lake Superior.

“For thousands of years, we have been focused around Lake Superior, and the border is only about 200 years old. So that’s a new construction to us.

“Our family ties and connections have crossed the border always. Actually, the border came to us, I always say,” said Lightfoot.

She explained that from an Indigenous perspective, the border lacks saliency, but it maintains relevancy in the ways in which “the different policies that two governments have put into place have separated, divided historical people.”

“I would say from that standpoint, there have been some challenges moving forward.”

Adjusting to administration

Lightfoot’s first year as senior advisor to the president on Indigenous affairs took some time to settle into, following Dr. Linc Kesler’s departure from the role.

“I stepped into the role August 1 [2018], and I have 20 per cent of [Kesler’s] former position. So the position held by Linc was split into two. So I hold the senior advisor component of what he used to hold. And then the director of the First Nations House of Learning is 80 per cent of his former role, and that’s Dr. Margaret Moss.”

At the time, Lightfoot and Moss received a mandate from the province to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Action Plan. Meanwhile, UBC Okanagan had finalized its TRC action plan, and the following spring the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Inquiry had finalized its report.

“So we were facing, by May, a situation where we had an overarching philosophy, but we were looking at having four or five multiple action plans in place. Our worry was this was going to get confusing for everyone around campus who’s charged with implementing it.”

Lightfoot and Moss suggested streamlining all the action plans into a single, easily accessible action plan.

“It’s an ambitious goal, but we’re hoping and expecting to have a finalized university-wide Indigenous Strategic Action Plan by the early part of next year. So this fall, we will be having working groups, talking circles, different consultations about how we go about taking all of these pieces and making a single, streamlined plan.”

Indigenous engagement

Lightfoot believes that both the TRC and MMIWG report’s calls to action and justice have resulted in a paradigmatic shift to approaching reconciliation.

Twenty years ago, the bar was low for Indigenous engagement. Lightfoot noted that although there were pockets of Indigenous programming and student recruitment, it was neither well-coordinated nor prioritized.

“What’s expected now of Canada, since the TRC said explicitly that the framework for reconciliation in this country must be implementing new [declarations], [is] a signal that this is no longer a model of just building Indigenous pockets. Now, Indigenous engagement and Indigenous initiatives are the responsibility of everyone.

“And so that is what I would call the pivotal moment. And that was also when we decided that the old Aboriginal Strategic Plan needed a revamp because it needed to reflect this new reality in a more explicit way.”

A long road ahead

Settling into her new role, Lightfoot intends to promote further engagement with Indigenous communities.

“We, as part of this new plan, need to step forward and strengthen and deepen that engagement. And so one of the pieces that we’re doing right now is taking another look at the old Memorandum of Affiliation with Musqueam, which was signed back in 2006.”

Lightfoot emphasized that it will be done in complete collaboration and conversation with the Musqueam nation.

“The old model was ‘We tell communities what we’re going to do as a colonial institution.’ The new model is we sit down with those communities and decide together what it should look like.”

Lightfoot’s plans for the future are to continue “building on a firm track record of success, but also recognizing this important pivotal moment in [a] philosophical shift, and trying to embrace that and get out ahead of it and hopefully take a leadership role on it.”