The Next Chapter

Why Senator Murray Sinclair has decided it's time to share his story and write a memoir

The Canadian senator and First Nations lawyer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why now is the time to write a memoir.
Murray Sinclair is a member of the Canadian Senate and First Nations lawyer who served as Chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2009 to 2015. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Murray Sinclair is a man of many titles reflecting his many roles — Senator, the Honorable Mr. Justice, chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, co-chair of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, among many others.

Sinclair can now add "author" to this list: he is writing a memoir. The book, which is tenatively titled Who We Are, looks at Indigenous identity and the need to understand the past to move on to the future. 

Sinclair spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why he is finally writing his memoir.

Letters to his granddaughter

"The year before my granddaughter was born, I had suffered a minor stroke. It wasn't that serious. It took about a year of rehabilitation in order for me to get back — the physical control of my hands was the main problem.

My granddaughter may have questions that only I can answer.

"It took about a year to get back to normal. When she was born, I was visiting with her and with her parents and I remember thinking that I may not be around when she grows up. My granddaughter may have questions that only I can answer. She doesn't know my family — my grandmother, my grandfather, my father — or where we came from.  

"I decided I was going to start writing things down for her. I used to call them 'Letters to my Sarah,' because her English name was Sarah. So I started writing her letters. That's how it started."

Murray Sinclair talks about Lynn Beyak’s comments on residential schools, his role in the Senate and minority voices in politics. 14:27

Reflecting on his childhood

"What I remember the most — and what most frequently pops up — is the laughter in the house. I grew up in a household with eight aunties and two uncles. There were four of us under the age of five when my mother died. She died of tuberculosis, which was quite a prominent illness in the Indigenous community. 

"My father, who was already suffering from the trauma of the war, had to suffer another trauma when he lost the only woman he ever loved. He disappeared out of our lives for a while. Before doing that, he arranged to ask my grandparents to raise us. 

What I remember the most — and what most frequently pops up — is the laughter in the house.

"I always tell people that my grandmother established a children's aid society right in the house. She created a child welfare system where she assigned each one of us to one of the aunties — and then gave that auntie the responsibility of making sure that we were fed, that we were dressed and we went to school.

"Each of those aunties took responsibility for us. I happened to be assigned to an auntie who became a teacher. She treated me like her son until she got married and started having her own children.

"But I remember the humour in the house and the stories that we would tell each other."

One of Canada's most respected Indigenous rights advocates has faced many setbacks over his decades-long career, fighting for justice for Indigenous peoples. Senator Murray Sinclair laid much of the groundwork for Canada's current reckoning with systemic racism. As the country faces calls to defund the RCMP, he warns that gaining justice for Indigenous people will be a long, drawn-out process. 25:30

Four questions

"Four questions inspired this memoir: Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? Who am I? I didn't invent these questions. I first heard them when I was studying philosophy at the University of Manitoba, just prior to law school. I heard an elder speak about them at a ceremonial gathering that was held in Saskatchewan at the World Assembly of First Nations. 

"He spoke about how every parent's responsibility is to help their children understand those four questions and to learn how to answer them. I was struck by that. I was struck by the fact that my family and my grandparents had endeavoured to give me answers to those questions. 

"But they were answers that were greatly prejudiced by the residential school experience, which was such a dominant force in our family. I didn't have complete access to all the information that I felt I needed in order to be able to answer them. So I set out on a road to discover what those answers were."

Murray Sinclair's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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