I feel honoured and humbled to participate’

Published July 21, 2009

Justice Murray Sinclair

The appointment of Justice Murray Sinclair as the new chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been applauded by those familiar with his astute legal mind, his ability to handle sensitive public proceedings, and his credibility in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal circles.

They say he’s up to the gargantuan task of making sure the final stage in the reconciliation process is both credible and lasting for aboriginal people caught in the 150-year legacy of forced assimilation through the Indian residential schools.

In 1988, Justice Sinclair became the first aboriginal associate chief justice in Manitoba and the second aboriginal judge in Canada. But he became well-known in Manitoba for his representation of aboriginal people and aboriginal legal issues, in particular, his inquest in 1994 into the deaths of 12 children in the pediatric cardiac surgery program of Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre (HSC). The inquest involved 31 months of testimony and 48,000 pages of transcripts. He also co-chaired an inquiry into the treatment of native people in the justice system, triggered by the shooting death of well-known aboriginal leader J.J. Harper by Winnipeg police in 1988.

Justice Sinclair, whose Ojibway name is Mi-zhana-Gheezhik (The One Who Speaks of Pictures in the Sky), was raised by his grandparents on the former St. Peter’s Indian Reserve north of Selkirk, Man. He graduated valedictorian from Selkirk Collegiate and was Athlete of the Year in his senior year.

In 1979, he graduated from the University of Manitoba’s faculty of law and passed his bar exams in 1980. He has taught courses in aboriginal people and the law at his alma mater since 1981. “His ability to balance a successful career in the Canadian legal and judicial system, while at the same time maintaining a reverence for the traditional teachings of the Ojibway people, has earned him respect in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal worlds,” noted the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, which bestowed him with an award in 1994.

Anglican Journal staff writer, Marites N. Sison spoke with Justice Sinclair just two weeks into his job at the TRC. Justice Sinclair and two other new commissioners – Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild – are taking over the work that was seriously delayed following the resignations of the previous commissioners, who had been locked in a power struggle late last year.

Q: In your first interview as new chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) you described your task as “daunting.” Can you elaborate?

A: I said “scary and daunting,” which essentially means it’s a huge task. The magnitude of it is, right now, undeterminable because I’m unable to say with any degree of certainty what the reaction of the community is going to be in terms of our presence, [and] in terms of our invitation to survivors and those who have worked in the schools to come forward and talk to us. We have a credibility issue as well because of the [Commission’s] slow start and the stumble that occurred at the beginning.

We have to overcome a lot of initial hurdles, and I think we have to overcome hurdles along the way, not the least of which is that we are asking people to share their stories with us. I think one of the most sacred trusts is to accept the responsibility of [hearing] somebody’s story and doing the right thing with it and about it. So, I just want to make sure that we are up to the task and that the people we’re asking to do this are in a position where they can trust us.

Q: How do you plan to regain the momentum and good will for the TRC that some say has been lost as a result of the resignations and consequently, the delay in starting the TRC’s work?

A: Regaining the momentum, I think, will be easier than regaining the goodwill. The momentum is really about planning, it’s really about ensuring that there is a process in place by which we initially let people know about our existence and what our plans are, that we communicate those plans effectively. And so, I think that’s our initial challenge-to put out a good plan together-recognizing the fact that there have been a host of people out there who have initially been charged with energy and willingness to participate, who may have become more subdued because of the time that has passed, and the…way that the commissioners’ processes failed. Regaining the momentum is really a question of getting started; once you get started…the momentum begins to take on a life of its own. What we need to do is ensure that…once we get started, we don’t stop, that we don’t have any major lapse of time before we move on to the next issue.

Q: Have you and the other commissioners identified your short term priorities and long-term goals?

A: Our short-term priorities (include) an initial planning process. As commissioners we have to sit down and … assess what we’ve got, what we’ve inherited, and take a look seriously at…what changes we need to make to have a proper foundation for the future. We’ve been doing that for the past two weeks, and I suspect that we’ll be doing it for the next several weeks as well because we have to assess the financial situation. We’ll have an analysis of that in the next week or so. Then we’ll have to look at the question of staffing. Most of the staff are in place, most have taken up their positions without any input from us as commissioners or even the former commissioners. We have to ensure that the skill sets that they bring to the situation are appropriate. Then we have to consider the location of the operations. Right now all of the functions of the secretariat and the commissioners are out of Ottawa. We think there’s probably a need for us to look seriously at moving some of the operations out of Ottawa into areas more accessible to survivors and to those who participated in the operations of the schools. Also, most of the schools were in Western Canada. That speaks to us of the need to consider having a Western Canada presence. We also have to ensure that there’s acceptability for the Inuit people who have different culture and language issues than First Nations people as well as those members from Quebec or from French-speaking communities, and in particular, the Metis people. We want to ensure that those who were engaged in the schools have access to and feel that they also have a connection to the commission itself.

Q: The former commissioners were supposed to have written a report about their time at the TRC shortly before they ended their term. Has this been made available to you?

A: The two remaining commissioners did that and we’ve seen it. They shared with us their experiences as commissioners and the work that they did engage in, the people they met with, and some of the assessments that they formed as a result of the communications that they had with survivor groups as well as church groups and other parties to the settlement agreement. They also provided us with their analysis of the secretariat operations and we’re considering all of that in our planning.

Q: What were their major findings and recommendations?

A: That discussion was intended for us to use in our planning. I think it wasn’t intended for us to share in a public way. When we accepted it from them, we accepted it with the understanding that it would be maintained in confidence until they felt it could be shared publicly.

Q: Churches have repeatedly stated that reconciliation needs to happen at all levels of society, but primarily at the local level or in communities across Canada. What are the TRC’s plans for local level activities? How can ordinary people be part of this important undertaking?

A: What everybody has to keep in mind is that we are just facilitators. We are called upon to see if we can facilitate the bringing together and the reconciliation of the various interest groups at all levels of the community. We are going to engage in discussions with the parties to the settlement agreement to determine how best to do that. But our initial thinking is that we need to speak to congregations in the church groups across Canada to determine where their interests may lie and how they want to do this. There would be a need for us to engage with officials at the regional level as well. At the diocese level it’s likely that there will be a need for churches and survivor groups to come to some understanding about the various roles that they have played with each other.

We’re also looking at the whole question of how to engage the parties to participate in the reconciliation process at national events we’re sponsoring. We think it’s important that there be a representative process all Canadians can feel part of, [and] can benefit from. We’re not likely to get to all Canadians at all levels, but we need to demonstrate to Canadians that there is a means by which this history and this past can be put behind us and we can move on.

Q: An issue that has been repeatedly raised as urgent has to do with former students who are already quite old and in some cases, have already died before their stories could be documented. Does the TRC have any plans on how to address this?

A: Certainly [for] those who are still with us our intention is to determine where they are. We have to be pro-active in terms of finding them, and in particular, those who have not yet had a chance to tell their stories, we want to ensure that at least they understand that there’s an opportunity to tell their story in a safe way. …if they haven’t told their story by now…it’s because there’s hesitation on their part and we want to determine the basis for that hesitation and if we can help them overcome it. Though there are those out there who are getting up in years, we have to be concerned about losing them.

We know that some stories have already been told, particularly through the Legacy of Hope that recorded stories on video over the past few years and we’re going to be gaining access to some of those video reports. In addition, the (Individual) Assessment Process for those who claimed compensation from the government for their time in residential schools has also been recorded. And while privacy issues need to be addressed, we’re going to be determining…how we to gain access to transcripts of the hearings of those who have testified in order to gain compensation.

Q: You and the two other commissioners were given a welcoming ceremony by various aboriginal and church groups. What was that experience like?

A: Rituals are generally very significant at an emotional level for those who participate, and I can tell you that there wasn’t anybody who participated who didn’t feel the emotional stimulation that it created. It touches you in several ways. What our elders tell us is that for you to be strong you have to address your body, your mind and your spirit. Intellectually, I think we’re always feeling that we’re in a good space because we have the knowledge and we’re learning things and we can handle it. Physically, as commissioners, we’re all relatively in good health, but in terms of spirit, all of the things that we do with the churches and with the aboriginal groups and the elders, have helped our spirit. As long as those three components-our body, our mind and our spirit-are in balance, then we’re well-armed to go about this work. The initiation ceremony, the lifting up ceremony was a significant event in our lives on a spiritual level and certainly gave us a sense that it brought balance to the work that we’re doing.

Q: What has this appointment meant for you personally?

A: It…has caused me to understand the important obligation that we all have towards each other. It’s all part of the teaching that it’s important for each of us to take care of our fellow human beings. The reconciliation process, I hope, will end up being an important legacy for Canada in terms of how it has dealt with the issue of aboriginal people historically. The circle will not be completed until the reconciliation process is completed, and I feel honoured and humbled by the fact that I’ve been asked to participate at this point in this process.


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