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A champion of Indigenous rights: Murray Sinclair awarded 2022 Loyola Medal

Sept. 15: Concordia’s highest non-academic honour recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to Canada
June 21, 2022
Murray Sinclair
Murray Sinclair: “By honouring me in this way, Concordia has recognized that it can contribute to the conversation and call upon all Canadians to listen to Indigenous views on reconciliation.”

The Honourable Murray Sinclair, LLB MSC IPC, former senator, judge and chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) — the federal taskforce created to provide survivors of the country’s residential school system the opportunity to tell their stories — has been named Concordia’s 23rd Loyola Medal recipient.

Created in 1963 by the Loyola Alumni Association, the Loyola Medal is awarded biennially to someone whose character, philosophy and contributions have enriched the heritage of Canada and humanity. Past recipients include Samantha Nutt, Clara Hughes and Oscar Peterson, LLD 79.

“I appreciate the significance of the honour that I’ve been bestowed with,” says Sinclair, who — after retiring as senator in January 2021 to mentor young Indigenous lawyers and write his memoirs — became chancellor of Queen’s University in July that year, and was named Companion of the Order of Canada in December.

“It marks an opportunity for this institution to acknowledge that it exists within a system that needs to change to move on the path to reconciliation,” he adds. “By honouring me in this way, Concordia has recognized that it can contribute to the conversation and call upon all Canadians to listen to Indigenous views on reconciliation.”

Concordia President and Vice-Chancellor Graham Carr says that Sinclair has been a champion for Indigenous peoples in Canada and a “tireless advocate not just for truth and justice but also for education and action.”

“His leadership as chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission challenged all Canadians to learn, reflect upon and confront this country’s long history of oppression, violence and discrimination against Indigenous peoples,” says Carr.

“In every respect, Justice Sinclair is emblematic of what the Loyola Medal aims to honour.”

A virtual award ceremony, featuring a moderated conversation between Murray Sinclair and Manon Tremblay, BA 03, senior director of Indigenous Directions at Concordia, will be held on September 15, 2022, during Concordia’s annual Homecoming celebrations.

Planting the seed

Sinclair was born in Selkirk, Manitoba, in 1951. His mother died of a stroke when he was an infant and he and his two siblings were raised by their grandparents. Though he says he never aspired to become a lawyer as a child, he developed a propensity for gathering facts from a young age.

“I remember being a little boy sitting on the arm of the sofa, reading the newspaper to my grandfather, who could not read English,” says Sinclair. “As I read, he would ask me ‘Where is that place?’ and ‘Who is that person?’ and I would find out. It was a meaningful way that he and I interacted, but it was also a learning experience.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Sinclair was already in his early 20s, that the seed to becoming a lawyer was first planted.

When he first attended university in the late 1960s, Sinclair enrolled in the University of Manitoba’s physical education program. He dropped out of the program, however, to care for his grandmother after his grandfather passed away in 1969. “My grandmother raised me and needed someone to take care of her,” he says. “So, I moved in with her, but I needed to get a job.”

Fortunately, he soon found employment as a social worker and administrator at a Friendship Centre in Selkirk.

“The government created a lot of programs to move Indigenous people into urban areas in the 1950s,” explains Sinclair. “This included financial, housing and social incentives, while starving people to death in their home communities, not allowing development and not allowing businesses to locate on reserves. This forced people to move to urban areas and Friendship Centres were created to deal with this large influx of Indigenous people.”

At the centre, Sinclair met many families who needed social services and housing support and he would often call the offices of his local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for support with the more urgent cases. That MLA happened to be Howard Pawley, a young lawyer who at the time was a rising star in Manitoba’s New Democratic Party, who would later become premier of the province.

“I would call his office whenever I had clients who needed help and would try to get him to do something about it,” says Sinclair. “Then he started coming to the Friendship Centre and holding meetings to hear their problems. From there grew a relationship between he and I that was very important to both of us.”

In 1973, Pawley, by then Manitoba’s Attorney General, offered Sinclair the position as his executive assistant. “He was a very influential guy in my life and he kept encouraging me to take the road to law school,” says Sinclair.

He worked with Pawley until 1976 when he was accepted into the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba, after completing an undergraduate degree in sociology and history at the University of Winnipeg.

Finding his purpose

Having discovered his career path, Sinclair now faced several existential questions. “The first day of law school I asked myself ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Who am I?,’” says Sinclair, “and that became imbued with other questions such as ‘What am I capable of doing?’”

When he realized he wasn’t going to find those answers in school, Sinclair turned to his community and his family. “My grandmother was still alive, and I remember her saying ‘Whatever it is that you do, you have to do something to help people.’

“Then, I met with other elders and I began to develop an approach based upon the information they shared with me — some of which was to be careful from becoming too caught up in the white man’s legal system and to stay true to my own identity.”

Sinclair graduated from law school in 1979 and began practicing in 1980, focusing on civil and criminal litigation, Indigenous law and human rights. In 1988, he was appointed associate chief judge of the Manitoba Provincial Court, becoming the province’s first, and Canada’s second, Indigenous judge.

Soon after his judicial promotion, Sinclair was made co-commissioner of Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry — an investigation into the presence of systemic racism in the province’s criminal justice system.

“It was an emotionally demanding experience, but I was a young judge and I was eager to make my mark,” he says. “It was a real learning experience for me, to listen to very articulate and wise people who had experience dealing with the justice system and saw what it was doing to their communities.”

He says the inquiry left a lasting impact and helped him prepare for what was to come.

A difficult decision

Two decades passed before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as part of a settlement between residential-school survivors, the churches that ran them and the federal government.

From the 1880s until the last residential school closed in 1996, some 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend government-funded schools run by Christian churches. Prevented from speaking their language or practicing their culture, these schools were part of the government’s efforts to assimilate Indigenous people into Canadian society.

As a prominent Indigenous judge, now appointed to the Court of Queen's Bench — Manitoba’s highest trial court — Sinclair was a natural pick to lead the commission. Yet, when he was asked to take the chairperson’s role, he initially declined.

“I hesitated because of the work I had done recently was very emotionally draining for me and I didn’t feel ready to do that work again,” he says.

However, the TRC approached him again after the original commissioners and chairperson quit due to infighting. Sinclair wasn’t feeling much stronger, though he says he was compelled to accept the role for the sake of the survivors.

“They saw the TRC disappear right before their eyes just as they were getting ready for it and I could see the anger, the frustration and the sense of being victimized again,” says Sinclair. “I knew that we couldn’t allow them to continue in their disappointment and that they needed to be able to tell Canadians what they had gone through.”

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

For the next six years, Sinclair travelled across Canada with the TRC, hearing from more than 6,500 survivors and witnesses of the residential school system. The commission also hosted seven national events during this time to engage and educate Canadians about the history and legacy of residential schools — nearly 25,000 people attended the first event.

The TRC was a colossal undertaking with high stakes and the hopes of thousands of Indigenous people across the country hanging on its success — a responsibility the commission did not take lightly.

“We had a council of survivors who helped guide us, but we also had elders and spiritual people who were well-versed in their traditions and cultures,” he says. “We put in place processes that allowed us to work closely with the survivors who spoke to us.”

At the end of each day — after the testimonies had been shared with the commission — the survivors, their families, elders, the TRC commissioners and audience members would gather in sharing circles to discuss the events of the day, sometimes for up to two hours.

“We would talk about what the impact of the day was for each of us, and the purpose was to relieve the heaviness of it,” says Sinclair. 

“We never lost sight of the pain and trauma that survivors were telling us about. It was quite emotional, but at the end of that time we would all feel that we had done something good that day and that we were better for it. We never ended a day without doing that.”

‘The road to reconciliation’

Since May 2021, hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada. Thousands of children are believed to have died in these schools from disease, abuse and neglect, with the full extent still being uncovered.

When asked whether these horrifying discoveries mark a turning point for Canada, Sinclair responds: “I don’t think turning point is the right concept for this. What I said at the end of the TRC was that reconciliation was going to require us to overcome a number of challenges and hurdles, and this is just one of them.”

He says the TRC tried to include the search for unmarked graves into the commission’s mandate, but it required the consent of all parties implicated in the court settlement and the federal government refused to consent. The final TRC report dedicated an entire volume to the issue of missing children and hidden burial sites.

Sinclair adds that the country is beginning to realize the importance of these unmarked graves, though he believes there remains a long road ahead. “The sense of injustice that comes from this is going to fester unless we can find a way to address and deal with it.

“That said, once we get past this one, there will be something else,” he says. “There will be a series of hurdles that need to be addressed so that both sides are content before you can say that we have come to terms with the events of the past.”

According to Sinclair, one of the biggest challenges to reconciliation remains that most non-Indigenous Canadians do not realize that they too are victims of the country’s policies.

“Children raised in Canadian society from 1867 onward were indoctrinated into believing that Indigenous people were inferior — that they had no rights, that they were heathen, savages, warriors, uncivilized. It was taught to non-Indigenous children for seven generations and continues to be taught today.

“When Canada recognizes that, only then we will be able to say that we are on a significant part of the road to reconciliation.”

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