Indigenous leader discusses UN reconciliation policies in action

Squamish Nation Chairperson Khelsilem presents a seminar on creating Indigenous joy

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This is a photo of the outside of the United Nations headquarters. Outside the front door is a large row of numerous country flags, lining the grass.
PHOTO: Mathias Reding / Unsplash

By: Olivia Sherman, News Writer

Khelsilem is an Indigenous political leader, Chairperson of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), former SFU lecturer, and a leading voice for Sen̓áḵw’s affordable housing non-profit. The project is currently building 1,000 units of affordable homes and 6,000 apartments on Sen̓áḵw land. Khelsilem presented a seminar on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and how this policy is enacted in everyday life. The Peak attended the October 18 lecture to learn more.  

UNDRIP has been considered a crucial framework for Indigenous justice since its adoption by 144 countries in 2007. Despite the document being non-legally binding, mHe noted many countries have used its “comprehensive framework for addressing issues, such as self-determination, cultural integrity, land rights, and the right to participate in decision-making that affects our communities.” 

Khelsilem explained that UNDRIP was always meant to be an extension to the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, but geared toward more vulnerable Indigenous communities who need extra protection and support. 

BC adopted the act as a framework for Truth and Reconciliation in 2021, and it was adopted on a federal level in 2022. Khelsilem said progress has been “sluggish,” because acting on  Indigenous rights involves many logistical challenges, such as in translating this large, global document to fit a smaller, municipal scale.

Khelsilem described the term “reconciliation” as “a fraught term, at times, largely because of its abstract nature.” He explains many people have “an affinity for using abstract conceptual terms to try to articulate our goals and objectives.” The term becomes so muddled, it becomes largely meaningless and difficult to translate into action. “You can ascribe a lot of meaning to those words relative to your own morals or values. And then the word can end up meaning many things to different groups of people.” He explained this idea, noting oil and gas companies often use the abstract, conceptual values of Truth and Reconciliation to engage in environmentalist spaces. 

“Our rights as Indigenous Peoples come from our lands,” Khelsilem explained. “The work to develop the UNDRIP strategy in the city of Vancouver was never a negotiation, we never described it as a negotiation, it was a conversation and a project we were working on together,” and there were attempts to include and support everyone. 

Khelsilem’s main point regarding UNDRIP and how it correlates with BC’s implementation of Truth and Reconciliation comes from UNDRIP’s first Call to Action: “Indigenous Peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals.” Khelsilem honed in on the words “enjoyment” and joy,” and how Indigenous people deserve to feel joy in their rights and freedoms. Rather than stumble through technical, legal jargon to describe fundamental human rights, Khelsilem said this very first tenet of the UNDRIP charter states “the concept of joy is very human, and something many people can relate to.” By conceptually looking at the Calls to Action through the lens of joy, it becomes easier to visualize what that Act should entail. 

Putting Indigenous joy at the forefront of Truth and Reconciliation, Khelsilem called upon the audience of the seminar to propose a number between one and 43. Each number correlated with one of the UNDRIP’s 43 Articles. The first volunteer proposed the number 27; article 27 states Indigenous Peoples will be permitted to participate in the process of land management and control over territorial rights. Khelsilem explained how this article could be enacted through the lens of joy. “When I think about this, when I think about the full enjoyment, this is the ability for Indigenous people to actually participate and shape the outcome of things happening within their territories.” 

Another volunteer called out the number seven, which correlates to the article stating “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person,” and have the right to freedom, security, and “shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.” Khelsilem related this Article to a recent legislation passed to allow Indigenous people’s right to control their own education. This allows First Nations to create their own school boards and curricula. “We can actually educate our children in our own systems of our own designs based off our own values.” 

“The joy you feel from seeing a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or the joy you feel in applying for affordable housing and getting accepted [ . . . ] there’s lots of things that bring joy.”

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