By Patrick Quinn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Cree Nation played a prominent role at this year’s United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The theme at the largest global gathering of Indigenous leaders, which began April 17, was a rights-based approach to human health, planetary and territorial health, and climate change.
Cree Nation Government Justice Director Donald Nicholls has observed the advisory body’s vast progress since it first held annual meetings in 2002.
“I’ve been going to the permanent forum since it first started and definitely you can notice the difference,” Nicholls told the Nation. “I was told there were about 8,000 people this time. We used to have the Indigenous caucus in these small rooms and now it’s much more elaborate with translation and you get much deeper into issues.”
A major focus is advocating for implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Nicholls delivered a joint statement addressing national action plans for UNDRIP on behalf of a coalition of Indigenous and human rights organizations.
It emphasized adopting both UNDRIP and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which establishes standards for ensuring the participation of Indigenous peoples in decision-making that impacts them. Nicholls highlighted the progress of Canada and British Columbia, the first province to implement UNDRIP, while expressing concerns that many First Nations haven’t been adequately involved in the consultation process as Canada’s two-year deadline rapidly approaches.
“Sometimes Indigenous peoples can’t afford to come to the United Nations or their capital to meet with government officials,”
explained Nicholls. “There has to be some funding to put them on a more equal footing to engage in meaningful collaboration.”
The CNG has proposed establishing a permanent body led by Indigenous peoples to support this process. Nicholls noted that the CNG’s ideas are being well received in discussions with the federal government to address this action plan.
Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty and Deputy Executive Director Melissa Saganash discussed Indigenous approaches to conservation and climate change during one UN meeting, focusing on traditional activities related to caribou and reindeer.
With climate change causing some reindeer herders to lose 70% of their herd last year, the Sami discussed “green colonization” in a case successfully brought to the Norwegian Supreme Court against companies building wind farms on important traditional territories.
The Innu discussed caribou habitat loss from deforestation.
“It is essential that Indigenous voices are not only heard bringing solutions to the table for climate but are given a rightful place to teach them,” said Gull-Masty. “Sharing our experience of offering an Indigenous-led conservation approach is so important, and I believe that we have so much more to learn from one another.”
In his opening speech, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that the world is ready to listen Indigenous solutions addressing climate change. Recently elected Colombian President Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist leader, stressed reducing fossil-fuel dependency. Petro also announced an ambitious gathering in Brazil this August that will attempt reversing climate impacts and replenishing the rainforest.
In violence against Indigenous land defenders in South America, these issues are often interconnected with displacement related to environmental destruction.
“We are going to the UN because in our countries they are not hearing us,” said Majo Andrade Cerda, a Kichwa member of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus from Ecuador. “It’s a way for us to say we are still alive, because we don’t know when the states and the extractive industries are going to kill us. We are threatened every day.”
Nicholls noted that presentations delivered by Indigenous youth received an outpouring of support with meaningful exchanges of ideas. With the 50th anniversary of the JBNQA approaching in 2025, he would like to bring a delegation of Cree youth to develop connections with other nations.
“Governments understand Indigenous groups have solutions for the environment, but they’re not invited to sit at the table when it’s discussed,” asserted Nicholls. “We’ve requested the UN in New York and Geneva that we want to be treated as nations. There’s still a level of disconnect, we’re not invited when decisions are made.”
Patrick Quinn/ Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/THE NATION/ LJI is a federally funded program.