Manitoba

Change called for in Aboriginal Justice Inquiry 'not going to occur in my lifetime': Murray Sinclair

The former senator, who co-led an investigation into racism in the justice system, is now speaking out about events that shocked him, saddened him and worried him during the historic hearings.

30 years after AJI, co-commissioner speaks up about racism, death threats and reincarnation

Murray Sinclair was co-commissioner for the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, which released its final report in 1991. Most of its recommendations haven't been fulfilled, which doesn't surprise him. 'I would have told you then that I don't expect to see that kind of change that I think we're calling for within my lifetime,' he says. (Darin Morash/CBC)

The co-commissioner of a seminal investigation into racism in the justice system is now speaking out about events that shocked him, saddened him and worried him during the historic hearings.

Murray Sinclair says the level of hate that emerged during the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was so great, it reminded him of the Ku Klux Klan. The backlash was so strong he had death threats. 

"An RCMP officer came to my house and said, 'We have information that a City of Winnipeg police officer's threatened to kill you,'" he told the CBC during an interview about this month's 30th anniversary of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry's final report

Sinclair, who is also a retired senator and was co-chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was co-commissioner of the inquiry, which probed the role that racism played in the 1971 homicide of Cree teenager Helen Betty Osborne and the 1988 police shooting of Indigenous leader John Joseph (J.J.) Harper.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Sinclair shared stories that ranged from the personal — he believes in reincarnation — to previously undisclosed details from the midst of the hearings, like the aforementioned death threat.

"For a period of weeks, we had RCMP officers watching our house and making sure that nothing happened, and they would accompany me when I would go anywhere in the public," Sinclair said.

In the end, the threat was deemed baseless, attributed to the drunken ramblings of an off-duty officer, Sinclair said.

On J.J. Harper

Sinclair also says the moment he learned that J.J. Harper had been fatally shot by police, he knew the Indigenous leader was innocent.

"I knew there was something wrong with that story, and I didn't like the sound of it," Sinclair said.

It was March 9, 1988. Sinclair, a newly appointed judge, was at home after a long day in court.

He got word that Harper — an acquaintance through Harper's work as executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council — had been fatally shot by police after an alleged encounter with them.

"I'd always seen him in meetings as being a person who articulated his thoughts well and could represent his interests well," Murray recalled.

Which is why he was immediately suspicious.

"The alarm bell going off in my head was that this was not the way that I knew that J.J. Harper would conduct himself," Sinclair said. "He was not the kind of person who would react violently to the way that he was treated."

Within hours, another "alarm bell" was raised — when the officer who shot Harper was exonerated, by the chief of police himself.

"The chief of police very quickly stepped up on behalf of the officer and said, 'this is what happened, and you can believe me and the officer was in the right,'" Sinclair said.

Days later, Sinclair was asked to co-commission the inquiry that would further investigate Harper's death.

Murray Sinclair on the afterlife: 'Where am I going when I'm finished here on this Earth? My spirit will go back to the Creator … and then that spirit will go back to another infant being born.' (Darin Morash/CBC)

Then there was the racism. Sinclair wasn't naive. He was well aware it existed. (Even as a lawyer, he was sometimes mistaken for the accused in court because he was Indigenous, he says.)

But he wasn't prepared for the depth of it — including in the 1971 murder of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Man. 

Sinclair knew the Cree teenager was targeted because she was Indigenous. He knew that names of the accused were tossed around the community. But he was surprised to learn people sat on that information for years.

"They didn't do anything. They didn't put any pressure on the police. They didn't put any pressure on the accused or … [his] family to get him to come forward," Sinclair said. 

That made his mind go south of the border, to "the stories that I had read about the civil rights movement and the racism in southern states and the racism in southern cities and towns," he said.

"You almost kind of expected to start hearing stories about hooded people driving around … hunting down Indigenous guys and Indigenous families."

On despair

Sinclair also expected emotions to run high among police officers. But he wasn't prepared for the depths of despair.

Specifically, he recalled, the grim, dark morning in 1989 when Winnipeg police Insp. Ken Dowson died by suicide, hours before he was scheduled to appear at the inquiry.

"It was a very difficult day to realize the implications of what that meant and what it said about the situation he was in, and our potential role in regard to that," Sinclair said.

Within hours, he got a call from an elder who had heard the news about Dowson's suicide. Sinclair, he decided, needed emotional support.

"He said, 'You need to see me,'" Sinclair said. "'You need to come into ceremony with us.'"

Was he right?

"Absolutely," Sinclair said. 

Months later, the inquiry wrapped up and by 1991, its final report was complete. It included 296 recommendations for changes to the justice system.

That's my purpose, is to help the people.- Murray Sinclair

Now, Sinclair is philosophical about the inquiry and its recommendations.

Most haven't been fulfilled, which doesn't surprise him. In fact, he said, he didn't expect them to be.

"I would have told you then that I don't expect to see that kind of change that I think we're calling for within my lifetime," Sinclair said. "It's not going to occur in my lifetime."

He's blunt about the reasons.

Too many people think of Indigenous people as "people who come from a violent, inferior, savage culture and therefore are not worth saving, so to speak."

On the afterlife

Sinclair is also spiritual.

Each of us will one day be held accountable for our actions on Earth, which is a powerful motivator to do the right thing, he says.

"The moment that you leave this Earth and your spirit goes back to the Creator, the Creator makes you turn around and look back at everything that you have done. And he makes you account for all of the places that you've been," Sinclair said.

What's more is the idea of what comes next, he said.

"Where am I going when I'm finished here on this Earth? My spirit will go back to the Creator. My body will go back to the Earth, but my spirit will go back to the Creator," Sinclair said.

"And then that spirit will go back to another infant who was being born."

It is a reason, said the former co-commissioner of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, that he continues to advocate for change in the justice system and remains optimistic when progress seems slow.

"That spirit comes with a stronger sense of connection to all of creation and brings that back to the people. So that's my purpose, is to help the people in that way." 

Change called for in AJI 'not going to occur in my lifetime': Murray Sinclair

14 days ago
Duration 4:29
The co-commissioner of a seminal investigation into racism in the justice system is now speaking out about events that shocked him, saddened him and worried him during the historic hearings. Murray Sinclair says the level of hate that emerged during the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was so great, it reminded him of the Ku Klux Klan. The backlash was so strong he had death threats. 4:29

Clarifications

  • We initially reported that J.J. Harper was a friend of Sinclair. In fact, he was not a friend, but a longtime acquaintance.
    Nov 25, 2021 1:13 PM CT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Donna Carreiro

CBC Radio Current Affairs Producer

Donna Carreiro is an award-winning producer and journalist, who has worked for more than 27 years with CBC Manitoba. Prior to that, she was a print journalist for a daily newspaper and local magazines. She is drawn to stories of social justice (or injustice) that give a voice to those who most need one. She can be reached at donna.carreiro@cbc.ca.

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