Expanded Visions of Sustainability at the Expert Symposium

In the first few weeks at my new job at CFSC I got a text from Indigenous Rights Program Coordinator Jennifer Preston: “So! What do you think about coming to Vancouver?” With excitement I told her, “Of course, I’d love to.” A few weeks later I set off from my home office in Ontario to a multi-day event. I would be attending the Expert Symposium on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development: Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights and Ecological Knowledge.

The Symposium was just one component of a long-term project CFSC began in March 2021, with funds from the federal government’s Sustainable Development Goals Funding Program. Leading up to it, experts gathered online numerous times to discuss sustainability in the context of implementing the UN Declaration. These meetings led them to produce resources that grounded the in-person dialogue. The resources include two factsheets on the relationship between sustainability and Indigenous peoples’ human rights, and a series of videos exploring Indigenous visions of sustainability.

The symposium was hosted by the Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, University of British Columbia (UBC), and Canadian Friends Service Committee. Experts gathered to discuss the relationship between the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The focus was on how Indigenous peoples’ human rights are essential to the pursuit of sustainability. Let me share some background information on the symposium, how the sessions went, and why it was important.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The symposium drew connections between Indigenous peoples’ human rights implementation and the 2030 Agenda, including the SDGs. But what are they? The SDGs cemented their importance in 2015 when UN member states unanimously adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This set out a path for the global community’s future, and developed the SDGs as the steps on that path. Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution? The SDGs are sort of like that: the global community’s decades-long resolutions.

There are 17 goals in total, including the elimination of hunger, action on climate change, achieving gender equality, and more. As you can tell, these goals are ambitious. They imagine a world where everyone’s needs are met and where communities work well to care for each other. In many ways they align with CFSC’s vision of a world in which dignity, justice, peace, human rights, and harmonious relationships with creation are fostered and upheld.

“Sustainability ought to encompass our culture, spirituality, physical wellbeing, environment, and more.”


Yet the SDGs are far from perfect. Often, they fail to consider the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. Take goal 8 for example: economic growth and decent work for all. What counts as decent work? That depends on who you ask. Indigenous peoples’ understanding of decent work may vary widely from the norms of colonial societies. This symposium provided an important opportunity to discuss these discrepancies.

Our Time Together

The symposium took place over two days in April at UBC’s Vancouver campus on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. Upon arriving, I was struck by the beauty that surrounds UBC. I marvelled at snow peaked mountains towering over the city and the deep blue glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.

On our first day together, Musqueam Elder Larry Grant welcomed us to this territory. Dalee Sambo Dorough, Inuit advocate and Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, gave the keynote address. Her presentation focused on the need for a new global trajectory. In her introduction, she spoke of the generations of Indigenous peoples who have preserved and used sustainable practices. “Indigenous peoples have always practiced sustainable development. We would not be here. Hands down, bar none, we would not be here if we did not practice sustainable concepts. We originated them and we still practice them.”1 Her conclusion emphasized the need to implement the UN Declaration. Doing so will allow Indigenous peoples’ sustainable practices to freely flourish to the benefit of all of us. “The world community needs us,” she asserted.

The second day of the symposium featured a series of panels and extended dialogue between the presenters and other experts in attendance. CFSC’s Jennifer Preston was our in-person host and as she mentioned in the day’s introduction, each conversation advanced the discourse!

I spent much of the symposium assisting advocate and activist Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel in filming interviews. I saw up close the way Ellen connected with participants in honest conversation. With those she knew well and those she had just met, Ellen was able to cultivate a comfortable space for everyone to share.

One of my favourite questions Ellen asked each participant was what sustainability meant to them. Although the answers ranged in content, most were underscored by two major themes: that their people had been practicing sustainability for generations, and that they understood sustainability wholistically. I used to think of sustainability in relation to development or energy, but these answers expanded my view. Sustainability ought to encompass our culture, spirituality, physical wellbeing, environment, and more.

Charting the Path

As our two days together concluded, Craig Benjamin was tasked with drafting a discussion paper outlining the major insights from the symposium. (That paper is available on the Coalition’s website. I encourage you to read it for a deeper analysis than I will provide here.) As Craig notes, some states view the SDGs as aspirational goals, but experts at the symposium helped dispel this notion. They clarified that sustainability is a human right. This means that human rights must inform how we pursue sustainable development. The SDGs aren’t simply a list of things governments hope to achieve. They’re goals that must be worked towards consistent with human rights principles. So maybe my New Year’s resolution comparison wasn’t sufficient. The insights at the symposium helped me think of the SDGs more as promises.

Experts also emphasized that human rights must include the rights of Indigenous peoples. These rights are outlined clearly in the UN Declaration. They include rights to self-determination, to practice and revitalize Indigenous cultural traditions, to clean water, and many more. As Craig puts it, the Declaration is an important part of the blueprint that must guide the pursuit of sustainability.

Unfortunately, this blueprint has yet to be realized. Although some progress is being made, governments still oppress Indigenous peoples in violation of the Declaration. However, experts at the symposium imagined a world where that oppression ceases, where Indigenous rights are respected, and where Indigenous peoples can freely practice their vision of sustainability throughout the world. This vision gives me hope.

Jeremy Vander Hoek is CFSC’s Assistant for Indigenous Rights and Events.