Sen. Murray Sinclair on truth and reconciliation’s progress

One year after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report was released, its leader discusses forgiveness, inspirations, and challenges ahead

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Senator Murray Sinclair in his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa May 31, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Senator Murray Sinclair in his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa May 31, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)
Senator Murray Sinclair in his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa May 31, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Murray Sinclair led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) into Canada’s residential schools. June 2 marks one year since the commission—after six years of study and hearing from more than 6,750 residential school survivors—released its findings and 94 “calls to action” aimed at building reconciliation and Indigenous culture. Before the TRC, Sinclair was Manitoba’s first Indigenous judge; this year he was appointed to the Senate.

Q: What’s been the biggest challenge of your new job, senator?

A: As a judge I was in control of everything when I walked into my room. Now I’m not in control of anything. I’m barely in control of where I can sit.

Q: Will your focus be on bringing Indigenous issues to the table?

A: Absolutely. That was my agenda coming here—to make sure the calls to action for the TRC, and issues of importance to Indigenous people, were in the hearts and minds of senators.

Q: Was accepting the appointment a difficult choice?

A: Absolutely. I’d retired. I was going to live the life of a hermit.

Q: To what do you attribute the success of the TRC?

A: I think Canada was ready for it. We were riding the crest of a wave that had already been established. People give us credit—as though we brought about something. But in reality, the Canadian people were the ones who deserve the credit. By the end of last summer, schools, school divisions and ministries of education across the country had announced their decision to change the curriculums of their systems. We had letters from charitable institutions announcing that they were changing the way that they were funding initiatives going forward. We had letters from private industry announcing that they were ensuring that their Aboriginal employees were properly taken care of, and their non-Aboriginal employees were given a course to understand this history. We had letters from post-secondary institutions, universities and colleges announcing mandatory education. All of it in the absence of any government initiative.

Q: Has the new government been responsive to the TRC’s calls to action?

A: There’s no question. When the Prime Minister of Canada puts in the letter of mandate to each government minister a section that tells them they have to pay attention to Indigenous issues and the nation-to-nation relationship this country has to have, then those ministers better take that seriously—and they are.

Q: How do they do that?

A: That’s what they’re struggling with, because it involves a wholesale change of thinking. I’m pretty convinced that by the end of the first term of this government we will not see significant change in results yet; but I think we will change the foundation of doing business so that we will eventually be able to say that things are getting much better within the next two generations. We have to recognize that reconciliation will be harder than getting to the truth.

Q: On an individual basis, what does that mean for non-Indigenous Canadians?

A: Read the calls to action. Read the summary report. It’s about increasing your level of awareness.

Q: What is the cost of doing nothing—of not undertaking this national project?

A: Consider what it’s been costing us for the last 20 years. The costs to the Canadian economy and to Canadian society have been enormous. Indigenous children are killing themselves at significant rates; Indigenous children are being apprehended and placed into institutions and foster homes where they’re losing their culture in ways very similar to the residential school system of the past. Indigenous men and women are being incarcerated at much higher rates than they have been for the last 25 or 30 years. And each of those are not just a cost to the system in terms of dollars, but in terms of lost human resource.

Q: Where do we begin?

A: Education is the key to reconciliation.

Q: Does it also mean acknowledging that what happened in residential schools was cultural genocide?

A: We said so in our report, and I think it merits being included in educational materials. I think we have to teach it at an appropriate level, in an appropriate way. When people leave high school, they should have a good understanding of what Canada has done. They need to believe in this country, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But at the same time, they need to see all the warts too. What you reinforce in children will affect their behaviour and attitude toward each other.

Q: But learning about and understanding what happened in residential schools is not in itself an end.

A: Indeed. Learning the truth about the schools, in fact, is so shocking to some people that they can’t get past that. They don’t know what to do and they’re afraid of the next thing. Getting to reconciliation will be much harder than getting to the truth.

Q: Has forgiveness been hard for you?

A: I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that I needed to forgive anybody. My sense of commitment to this country is strong enough for me to see that this is a wart on our existence, and we need to come to terms with it. And we need to be able to put it in a proper place, so that we can move forward together.

Justice Murray Sinclair (centre) and Commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild (left) and Marie Wilson pull back a blanket to unveil the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the history of Canada's residential school system, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
Justice Murray Sinclair (centre) and Commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild (left) and Marie Wilson pull back a blanket to unveil the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the history of Canada’s residential school system, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Q: Throughout this, who was your biggest influence?

A: My grandmother, Catherine Simard. My mother died when I was a little boy. I went to live, along with my brothers and sister, with her; she was 58 at the time. To me, she was always Kokum [Grandmother] even though it probably would have been easy for me to have developed a sense of her as being my mother.

Q: What did your grandfather do?

A: He was a carpenter, trapper and fisher. As young boys, he would take us out when he was setting and checking traps. He taught us how to walk through the woods without disturbing the world—an important skill to a young boy.

Q: Did your grandparents live to see you become a lawyer and a judge?

A: No. In fact, they never came—I don’t know why, exactly—but they never came to any of my public activities. I was an athlete in school and they never came to any of my games. I was valedictorian of my high school class. But they never came to my graduation.

Q: Do you have a theory?

A: I think they had a—not a good relationship with the school, with the idea of education in schools.

Q: Can you explain that a bit?

A: Many of my uncles were abused in residential schools, so there was a distrust of the schools generally; but they at the same time always made very clear that I had an obligation to get an education, and do something with it.

Q: How did your father fare after leaving residential school?

A: The abuse he experienced was pretty severe, and learning about it helped me understand my father. But he experienced a number of tragedies in the course of his life—one of which was the loss of my mother when she was a young woman. And he’d gone to war as a teenager, and was badly injured.

Q: When did you learn about your dad’s abuse?

A: I didn’t know about it at all until recently. My father died in 1994.

Q: What did you say to him toward the end?

A: It was during that time that he was in greatest need of comforting—to believe that he was not going to hell, as he thought he would, that he was going to be with the Creator. He needed to hear me say to him and hear others say to him that we forgave him for all that he had done—and not done with us—in the course of his life.

Q: Can you describe some of the most heartening conversations you’ve had in the last year?

A: A lot of Indigenous people have reached out to thank me—for the work we did, or a speech I gave. I can understand and appreciate that innately, because when I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, there were no people like me speaking to children—people with whom I could identify.

Q: It also puts a lot of pressure on you.

A: It’s a significant responsibility to do right and to be right; but it’s also an awareness of just how much we are missing. There are many heroes in our story, and I just wish [Indigenous youth] could know more of them. I wish they could know the stories of their parents and grandparents better, and were able to connect to them.

Q: Are you happy with the progress of the last year?

A: Happy’s not the right word. I’m feeling that the train is slowly moving. But we still have a ways to go before we can get it up to any kind of speed. And we have a long distance to go once we get to that speed.