1 year after Truth and Reconciliation report: 'Not seeing change yet'

Murray Sinclair has largely remained silent since the Trudeau government appointed him to the Senate, but in an interview with CBC News the independent senator reflects on what's been accomplished since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's summary report was released one year ago today.

'We're just on the beginning edge of starting to change things,' says Senator Murray Sinclair

Independent Senator Murray Sinclair was appointed to the Red Chamber by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March. Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released the summary report into the history of Canada's residential school system last June. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Independent Senator Murray Sinclair has largely remained silent since the Trudeau government appointed him to the Red Chamber last March, but in an interview with CBC News he reflects on the first anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation summary report and opens up about his new role.

Sinclair, who served as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, documented the heart–wrenching testimony of more than 6,000 Indigenous residential school survivors in a report made public last June. The report included 94 calls to action as a way to redress the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

"In reality, I think that there has been progress, and I don't want to take anything away from the fact that there has been movement on a number of fronts that we need to acknowledge — but whether it's adequate or not, that remains to be seen," Sinclair said in a phone interview with CBC News from Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

When Sinclair made public the summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Conservative government would not commit to the 94 calls to action, including the launch of an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper's historic 2008 apology to residential school survivors on behalf of the Canadian government was seen for a time as a step forward in relations with First Nations, it was not enough to turn the relationship around.

A rejected Aboriginal Education Act, a controversial Financial Transparency Act, court challenges to major energy projects and rumblings of Idle No More protests were just some of the conflicts threatening to hobble an already fractured relationship ahead of the federal election of Oct. 19.

Indigenous youth frustrated

Canadians elected a majority Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose campaign of "hope and change" promised to set a new tone in Ottawa.

"No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples​," Trudeau said when he gave his cabinet ministers their marching orders.

But according to Sinclair, Indigenous leaders have reason to be upset with the slow pace of progress.

"We also need to be prepared to acknowledge the frustration and the impatience that the Indigenous community, particularly young Indigenous leaders, have about the march of progress, because they have been waiting for a long time to see change and they're not seeing change yet.

"For me or any other person to suggest that there has been progress would be to suggest that we have achieved change, but we're just on the beginning edge of starting to change things," Sinclair said.

The northern Ontario First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency in April after an alarming number of Indigenous youth attempted to commit suicide. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Since being sworn into power last November, Trudeau repeated the same apology originally delivered by Harper in the Commons years earlier.

I think that the message really needs to be that progress needs to be constant.- Murray Sinclair, independent senator

Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal premier of Ontario, followed suit just last week when she apologized to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people for "generations of abuse" at the hands of the province's school system.

Trudeau also outlined his plan to reset Canada's relationship with Indigenous people, including the first phase of an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women which the government said it would launch this spring.

Even interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose came out in support of an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women less than a month after the federal election.

And while the new Liberal government's first budget earmarked $8.4 billion over the next five years for Indigenous people, Sinclair said all of this is just a start. 

"I cannot say that I am satisfied with the way things are going," Sinclair said, "but in saying that I don't want you to think that I am dissatisfied, or unsatisfied.

"I think that the message really needs to be that progress needs to be constant," the senator told CBC.

Not a partisan appointee

When Sinclair made public the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last December, he spoke about the effect of the commission's work on his own health. At the time, he vowed to slow down and spend more time with his family.

When the prime minister and I had a discussion of my accepting my appointment, I made it very clear that I was not going to collaborate with the government... that's what independence means.- Murray Sinclair, independent senator

"And then the call came and we had to make a decision as a family," he said of his discussion with Trudeau. "They felt it was too important."

His decision to join the scandal-plagued Senate, which for years had been seen as a dumping ground for bagmen and party hacks, was not easy.

Sinclair, who enjoyed a good reputation as former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Manitoba's first Indigenous judge, said he told Trudeau if he accepted the appointment he would act independently of the government's agenda and vote according to his conscience.

"When the prime minister and I had a discussion of my accepting my appointment, I made it very clear that I was not going to collaborate with the government, or the governing party … on how best to meet the government's objectives," Sinclair said. "I said that there will be times when we will be at odds and we need to recognize that that's what independence means."

Sinclair was one of seven new senators appointed as the result of a new selection process established by Trudeau's Liberals in a bid to transform the beleaguered Senate into a more "independent, non-partisan" institution.

"The need for Senate reform and to change the way the Senate functions — to make it not only more functional but also to make it more credible to the Canadian public — is a real challenge," he said.

"I know that there are many people, among my circle of contacts, who questioned my sanity in coming to work in a place that had a whole different set of problems," Sinclair said as he let out a laugh.

Sinclair says he will continue to champion the rights of Indigenous people in the Senate. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Championing Indigenous rights 

Sinclair said he'll have more to say about the "real connection" between the work he did as the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and his current role as an independent senator in the months to come.

"I think Senate reform and the reform of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can go hand in hand."

"If there had been a voice of not only reason but experience in the Senate to draw attention to the fact that certain legislation … had a negative impact upon a significant minority group in society such as Indigenous people, then maybe things would have been different," he said.

Sinclair said that working as an independent senator is an opportunity for him to continue the work he began at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"I felt that this was an opportunity for me to engage in a process to implement the calls to action."

"By the fall time, I expect to have a plan in place that will allow me to remind Canadians and legislators, both in the House and in the Senate, constantly about areas of need that we have to keep in mind as we go forward … and how things will impact the Indigenous community no matter what the legislation is," Sinclair told the CBC.

Asked if had any advice for non-Indigenous Canadians, Sinclair said: "Read the calls to action, understand them as much as you can, select one and see what you can do to make that call to action work."

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