After leading landmark inquiries on racism in Manitoba, residential schools and police discrimination in Thunder Bay, this jurist turned politician says he’s learned that shocking words are sometimes best: Genocide. Apartheid. War. Now, he has more to say.
ILLUSTRATION BY AGATA NOWICKA
The words are so shocking, so evocative of foreign atrocities, that many Canadians are still unwilling to accept that they apply to their own country – words such as “apartheid,” “genocide” and “war.”
But after decades of research from his inquiries into racial abuses in the justice system and in residential schools, Senator Murray Sinclair never hesitates to use those terms – even when he knows they might spark a backlash.
“Sometimes the shock value is worth it,” he told The Globe and Mail.
“It’s about making people sit up and take notice. It’s about getting people out of their comfortable chair and getting them to think seriously about it.”
A strong case can be made that the 68-year-old independent senator and retired judge has done more than any other Canadian to educate the country about the painful realities that have dogged its history and institutions.
As chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada from 2009 to 2015, he documented the existence of cultural genocide in Canada’s residential schools. As a leader of justice and policing investigations in Manitoba and Thunder Bay, he exposed officials who were willfully ignoring racism in their police forces. And in his personal writing and speeches, Mr. Sinclair has hit even harder, describing a web of genocidal policies and apartheid laws that Canadian governments deployed in a “war” against Indigenous people – a war he says never really ended.
Although his formal inquiries have ended, his work is far from over. As he tirelessly follows a busy schedule of speeches across the country this year – including a recent one describing how Indigenous people were excluded from Confederation’s bargains – Mr. Sinclair continues to have an outsized influence in shaping Canada’s understanding of itself.
He sees himself as struggling to dismantle the legacy of a system that can be compared, in many ways, to the apartheid of South African history. Despite frequent hate messages on Twitter and Facebook, he continues to make that point on social media, shrugging off the anonymous attacks.
“There will be people who will always resist those statements,” he said in a two-hour interview in his Winnipeg office, symbolically located on an “urban reserve” under the authority of the Peguis First Nation.
“If you say that there’s been racism by white people against Indigenous people historically, you run the risk of white people standing up and saying, ‘No, we’re not racist.’ But if the evidence is there to support your position, you will also garner a level of support among the non-Indigenous population who will say, ‘Yes, we acknowledge it, so let’s get on with it.’”
His inquiries, beginning with the pioneering Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba in the late 1980s, were prompted by tragedies and injustices: the deaths of young Indigenous people in Manitoba and Thunder Bay and in residential schools, neglected by the police and the courts and never properly investigated.
But from those tragedies, Mr. Sinclair found lessons that have shifted Canada’s public debates.
When he was appointed associate chief judge of the Provincial Court of Manitoba in 1988, he became the province’s first Indigenous judge and only the second in Canada. Within weeks, he was immersed in a hugely complex inquiry into the discrimination faced by Indigenous people in the province’s justice system. His relentless work to expose the barriers that hold back Indigenous people – and to find solutions – has scarcely paused in the three decades since then.
In interviews, he chooses his words carefully, speaking in calm and measured tones, even when his anger at historical abuses is clear. In speeches, he uses gentle humour and warm stories of his own family to make his points.
His goal is to reach Canadians who are open to learning about the country’s history – to give them “the sense that now they can talk about it, too.
“It’s not simply about confronting, it’s also about assisting. The intent from that is always, ‘So what are you going to do about it? So what should we do about it?’ Statements like ‘there’s racists in society’ that are not accompanied by ‘now what should we do about it?’ are not very helpful.” MORE