After an illustrious 30-year judicial career in Manitoba, Senator Murray Sinclair retired from the bench in January 2016, hoping to spend more time with his family and his carving hobby.
Eight days after he filed his papers, Prime Minister Trudeau called, asking to appoint him to the Canadian Senate.
Sinclair, who was appointed as the first Indigenous judge in Manitoba in 1988 — only the second in Canada at the time — delivered a presentation at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook on Monday evening talking about happiness, the damage residential schools caused to Indigenous families and culture, and the path forward for reconciliation.
“Happiness, for me, is one kid at a time,” Sinclair said. “One moment at a time. Happiness is something I cannot take for granted, because we are still in the throes of recovery from the past. We are in the transition period from oppression to freedom.
“Freedom from the pain, freedom from the past, because we are still dragging the past with us like it’s an anchor. We cannot forget, we will not forget, because it’s from that past that we will be able to, and must build, our future together.”
Sinclair spent a lifetime in judicial system, first as a practicing lawyer and then as a judge, where he was involved in three notable commissions that included The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, the Report of the Pediatric Cardiac Surgery Inquest, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Sinclair started his legal career as a lawyer after receiving his law degree from the University of Manitoba in 1979, but turned down the offer to become a judge three times before he accepted the appointment in 1988.
Sinclair credited Alfie Scow, Canada’s first Indigenous judge, for flying out from Vancouver to Winnipeg to spend the day to talk about his own experiences on the bench as the lone Indigenous judicial figure in the country.
“His gesture of kindness was so important to me,” Sinclair said. “His effort at trying to make me comfortable with the decision I made was an important gesture.”
Recognizing historical Indigenous abuse
Sinclair spent much of his presentation navigating through the dark and painful history that the Government of Canada has with Indigenous peoples.
Britain had signed an important treaty in 1763 — the Treaty of Niagara — that set out peace terms with 3,800 Indigenous leaders as the crown was engaged in a global dispute with the French as part of the Seven Years War.
However, the Indigenous relationship with the rest of Canada changed significantly after Confederation.
Sinclair says a school clause was inserted into the first numbered treaty — Treaty One — that guaranteed the federal government would build schools on reserves and provide the same educational opportunities to Indigenous children as non-Indigenous children.
That clause gave rise to residential schools, which Sinclair said were less about education and more about indoctrination.
“They [Indigenous children] were told in a demeaning way that their people were inferior,” Sinclair said. “They were taught this in a harsh way and they lived in fear that what was happening to their friends would one day happen to them.
“We heard from many survivors who said they themselves were never abused in the same way that others talked about abuse, but they still lived in fear of the fact that it might happen to them someday.”
As much as 50 per cent of Indigenous children experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse, said Sinclair. In some schools, in the early 20th century, as many as 40 to 60 per cent of Indigenous children died either at school or shortly after leaving schools.
“Think about it. If we ran a school system today where 40 per cent or 60 per cent of the kids died in the schools, there would be hell to pay by somebody,” Sinclair said.
Lawsuits over residential school abuse began to accumulate in the 1980s with the passing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the federal government set aside billions of dollars for compensation in 2006.
Serving on commissions
As a judge, Sinclair served on three notable commissions that focused on separate investigations into Indigenous treatment in the justice system; an investigation into the deaths of 12 children in the paediatric cardiac surgery program at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre, and chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Sinclair said the first two investigations were so emotionally draining that he initially declined his involvement in the TRC.
During the Aboriginal Justice inquiry, Sinclair said he heard stories after stories of injustice in the system from Indigenous people who lost their children to the penal and child welfare systems and were mistreated by lawyers and judges.
The Report of the Pediatric Cardiac Surgery Inquest — an investigation into the deaths of 12 children following cardiac surgeries at a hospital in Winnipeg in 1994, took a terrible emotional toll on everyone involved, Sinclair said.
“It tore me apart to do that particular inquiry, so I was not ready the first time I was asked to do the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said.
However, despite declining involvement in the TRC at first offer, Sinclair said he changed his mind after the Commission ran into troubles.
Sinclair said he realized how important it was for Indigenous people to tell their experiences with the residential schools and the abuse they suffered.
“As one survivor told me, ‘If I tell my children what happened to me, I’ll start crying and I don’t know if I can stop’,” Sinclair said.
The path of reconciliation
While historical Indigenous education in residential schools was a form of suppression and indoctrination, the only way forward for reconciliation is education, said Sinclair.
“In the name of education, this damage has been done,” he said. “But education, as we now understand it to be, is the key to reconciliation going forward. We need to change the way we educate people about this country, to educate our children about how to relate to each other better so that they can talk to, and about, each other better than you and I have been able to do.
“That’s how we’re going to improve this over a period of time.”
But there are ongoing challenges that need to be tackled together for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.
Even now, Sinclair says he worries about his daughters and granddaughters in the context of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, noting his daughter’s best friend in high school was murdered in Winnipeg.
“I worry about my daughters becoming one of those victims of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” Sinclair said. “And I worry about my friends’ daughters, I worry about my cousins, I worry about their children. Happiness to me is elusive right now. I’m not there yet, when it comes to this. But that isn’t to say it’s not achievable.”
Joe Pierre, the Nasuʔkin (chief) of the ʔaq̓am Council, acted as Master of Ceremonies for the evening, telling a touching story of what happiness means to him and recounted a childhood trip to Hawaii where all his grandmother wanted to do was go swimming in the ocean on Christmas Day.
Pierre said the family woke up to a torrential downpour that day, but at least he and his grandmother had the whole Waikiki Beach to themselves.
At the start of the presentation, Pierre added that he was happy to be able to introduce Sinclair, using a Ktunaxa phrase that translates into a description of happiness as a form of gratitude.