Last week I had the honour to speak at a meeting of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, held at the First Nations Longhouse and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC Vancouver. The meeting was organized by Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot, Canada Research Chair of Global Indigenous Rights and Politics, and my senior advisor on Indigenous affairs.
The UN Expert Mechanism (EMRIP) meeting is a high-level UN event. The three-day expert seminar focused on repatriation of both tangible and non-tangible cultural property – a key priority for UBC, and a strength of BC, in general.
The expert seminar, which included 40 international and BC experts, UN personnel, UBC faculty and significant Indigenous leaders from BC, was held to develop a global best practices guide on practical implementation of Indigenous peoples’ human rights in these areas.
At the event, National Chief Perry Bellegarde gave a keynote address and spoke to the importance of repatriation of cultural property to be interpreted as both tangible, as in museum pieces, and as intangible, such as Indigenous languages, and how both are now obligations under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Repatriation of both tangible and non-tangible cultural property is a key priority for UBC. My remarks at the meeting are reproduced below:
- We are deeply honoured to have the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with us here and trust that you all have had a productive and enjoyable first day of this seminar discussing the topic of the repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains.
- It is an incredibly important conversation you are having on topics that resonate deeply throughout our university community, and beyond: how to implement Indigenous peoples’ human rights as articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
- The UN Declaration is part of a global societal agenda for the 21st Century and an essential component of reconciliation in Canada.
- We at UBC want to play a leading role in its implementation. We aim to set a positive example for other universities across Canada and the world on how to continue to uphold our responsibilities to Indigenous peoples.
- We recognize how difficult this journey of reconciliation can be and acknowledge the serious challenges Canadian society has faced this year. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada advised us – very wisely – when they completed their final report in 2015: “The truth was hard. Reconciliation will be much, much harder.”
- Just in the past several days, we in Canada and BC have seen some positive movements. We must continue to support work toward peaceful and negotiated solutions to unresolved issues.
- With all of us working together, I’m confident that we can turn our commitments into positive actions. We have much work to do to realize Indigenous human rights, and this is work we must all do—together.
- UBC is embracing this journey as our responsibility, both when it is easy, but also when it is hard. Ongoing dialogue, reciprocity and mutual respect are all key, and universities can play an important role in creating these spaces.
- UBC is uniquely suited to act as a living laboratory, a place to develop and implement innovative and path-breaking research, teaching, and engagement with Indigenous communities.
- With our new 2020 Indigenous Strategic Plan, we hope to demonstrate the success that can be achieved for all members of society when we work together toward a better and more just future.
- Universities can – and must – develop respectful, reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationships with Indigenous communities as a part of their core academic mission.
- At UBC, our commitment is to learn from our mistakes, and together, to continue to move forward. Repatriation is a powerful example of meaningful action taken towards that commitment.
- The Museum of Anthropology and the Lab of Archeology here at UBC have both been active in repatriation for many years and both view this as necessary work…work that is powerful, builds relationships and leads to new, dynamic and innovative co-created projects. It is additive, not subtractive.
- The first repatriation of ancestors by the Lab of Archeology was in 1991. In 2004, “The Journey Home” This proactive repatriation project works with Indigenous nations on the return of ancestors. The Lab of Archeology has repatriated within BC and was also the first North American institution to repatriate ancestors to the Māori of Aotearoa New Zealand.
- The Museum of Anthropology was engaged with the foundational document for repatriation in Canada: “Turning the Page – Forging New Partnerships between Museums and First Peoples,” a document produced in 1992 through many workshops held across Canada with First peoples and Museum staff.
- MOA’s first repatriation took place in 1995. MOA and has also repatriated internationally, to the Zuni.
- MOA’s most recent repatriation was the return of the Haida Mortuary Pole from SGang Gwaay in the summer of 2019.
- We look forward to hearing more on this important topic.
- But first, I am incredibly honoured to welcome tonight’s guest who will deliver the keynote for this seminar, the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
- I have been so impressed with the National Chief’s leadership on two priority issues of Indigenous rights implementation in practice: The Indigenous Languages Act and The Child Welfare Act, both passed in 2019.
- I’m delighted that the National Chief has joined us this evening to share more about the repatriation of culture, and I look forward to hearing from him on how we can move forward on Indigenous rights implementation in this important area.
Santa J. Ono
President and Vice-Chancellor