Montreal·Q&A

Senator Murray Sinclair calls for federal bureaucracy to 'shift its thinking' to respect Indigenous rights

Senator Murray Sinclair, in Montreal to accept the Canada World Peace award from the World Federalist Movement-Canada, says Canada is under international scrutiny now that it's adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Co-chair of Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Montreal to accept Canada World Peace Award

Senator Murray Sinclair is in Montreal to accept the Canada World Peace award. (Loreen Pindera/CBC)

Senator Murray Sinclair, the retired Manitoba justice who co-chaired Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is in Montreal to accept the Canada World Peace award from the Canadian branch of the World Federalist Movement – a nonprofit organization that promotes the development of democratic institutions and international law.

Sinclair was in CBC Montreal's Homerun studio to talk about the award and what's ahead for Canada as it sets out to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The following is an excerpt from the interview:

What does this award mean to you?

On a personal level, it's always nice to be recognized for the work that one has done.

I think this is an indication that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had some validity in the eyes of organizations around the world, not just in Canada.

Retired Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, Manitoba's first Aboriginal judge and the co-chair of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was sworn in to the Senate in April. (CBC)

How important was the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to your work?

When we looked at it closely, we found that a lot of the things the declaration was talking about were the very things that Canada had spent the better part of a century and a half attempting to eradicate – things like cultural institutions, language, family relationships, resource rights, land ownership, self-governance, were all issues the UN declaration talks about.

Those were the very issues the government of Canada, since Confederation, undermined and attempted to eradicate through legislation.

Canada only officially adopted the declaration this spring. Why did it take so long?

The government of Canada, under the Harper administration, had indicated that they were prepared to sign onto it. But then they filed what was called a "permanent objection" to it advancing any further.

That objection was withdrawn by this administration under Prime Minister Trudeau recently at the United Nations – and that made the status of the document at the United Nations unanimous. 

So now, as an international document, it has the privilege of enjoying unanimous support among the countries of the UN.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: When the UN declaration was adopted in September 2007, four countries voted against it: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Canada was the last of those to reverse its position.]

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Justice Murray Sinclair at the release of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada on the history of Canada's residential school system in December. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, how much is Canada being looked at as a model?

A lot of countries were looking at our commission, about how we were doing our work.

Now that the pathway has been shown, I think this country is under scrutiny by the international community to see what it's going to do about that –- about its commitment to honour the provisions of the UN declaration.

[That commitment] was given early on by Prime Minister Trudeau during the election and since then has been repeated. The real question, though, is going to be: How are they going to implement it? I don't doubt for a moment there will be some confusion in governmental circles.

People from within the government's bureaucracy come from an administration where they were given no direction and not allowed to engage in planning or policy-making around the declaration. They're now expected to be able to do that. So I expect there will be a need for the bureaucracy to shift its thinking on this.   

Are Canadians willing to make needed changes?

Undoubtedly it will take some time.

We indicated that there is a real issue around awareness of this history. The most common question we received from people who are not Indigenous is, 'What can we do about it?' And the most common statement we received was, 'I never knew any of this.'

That's because it was not taught in our schools. It was not something the government made publicly known.

As a result, most of the people in Canada, for generations, were educated to believe in the superiority of European civilizations and the inferiority of Indigenous civilizations, and that it was okay to ignore what Indigenous people were saying because they didn't have any rights to begin with. 

with files from CBC Montreal's Homerun