National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is 1 step on a long journey, says Murray Sinclair

The former senator and leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission discusses how far we’ve come on reconciliation, and how far we still have to go.

Former senator and TRC head discusses how far Canada’s come on reconciliation, and how much more we have to do

Murray Sinclair, former senator and former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, talks to CBC Radio's Unreserved. ( Kim Kaschor/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

As Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation approaches, Murray Sinclair says it's important to remember there's still much more work to do.

"I did say ... at the end of the TRC report that we will not achieve reconciliation in my lifetime. We will probably not achieve it in the lifetime of my children. We may not even achieve it in the lifetime of my grandchildren," Sinclair, a former senator and chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild.

"But if we make a concerted effort ... then eventually we will be able, some day, to wake up and, to our surprise, find that we are treating each other in a way that was intended when contact was first made."

The TRC, which released 94 calls to action in 2015, found that 4,100 named and unnamed students died in residential schools across Canada. Sinclair estimates the true number may be closer to 25,000 students.

This past spring, hundreds of potential unmarked graves were found at the sites of several former residential schools across Canada. In response, the federal government unanimously passed legislation in May to create the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

The day, Sept. 30., is a federal statutory holiday, and will apply to federally regulated workers. Some, but not all, provinces and territories are also observing the holiday with a day off for provincial and territorial workers and schools.

Indigenous community members organized an event with 215 pairs of children's shoes at the feet of the statue of John A. Macdonald in downtown Charlottetown on May 31, 2021. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Indigenous leaders have called on Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the country to mark it with solemn reflection.

Sinclair said the day should be about making sure Canadians don't forget what the schools did to Indigenous children and their families. He compared it to the way we mark Remembrance Day in Canada, or Veterans Day in the U.S.

"It's not just about marching and dressing up and getting some time off from school [or] work," he said. "If you fully understand what that … ceremony is about, you won't prevent yourself from crying."

  • Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at wherearethey@cbc.ca or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.

Deerchild, who is Cree and has residential school survivors in her family, said she had "mixed feelings" about the national day, wondering whether it will be enough for people in Canada to take those lessons to heart.

"Most people in this country won't, Sinclair responded. "But next year, there will be one more there, then the year after that, there will be one more."

WATCH | Murray Sinclair on how people can mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation:

Sept. 30 marks step toward reconciliation, says Murray Sinclair

2 years ago
Duration 1:29
For Murray Sinclair, Sept. 30 marks a day when we should all stand for reconciliation.

The most important goal of the TRC, he said, wasn't just uncovering what happened at residential schools, but "to make it part of our national memory," so that it cannot be forgotten.

"That's why legislating it, I think, was important, because it forces you to acknowledge that this day, something happened," he said.

'Education is the key'

RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay that she encouraged all provincial governments to recognize the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

But she expressed hopes that in the future, it would be extended to become "a reconciliation week," with a series of events dedicated to education about what happened at residential schools.

"We have to ... actually mark it with some events that help us to reflect on the truth of Canada and how we must never allow this to happen ever again," she said.

LISTEN | RoseAnne Archibald on her role as Assembly of First Nations' national chief, and the 'healing path forward'

Sinclair said that "education is the key to reconciliation," but noted that most of that work will be done in classrooms rather than at commemorative events like those on Sept. 30.

"There are still large masses of teachers who don't believe any of this, but there is a growing body of educators who recognize that they have a responsibility to ensure that their students are given a broader and better education about the history of this country," he said.

"That's where the real change is going to occur."

It is estimated that about 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their communities and forced to attend residential schools across Canada. (Library and Archives Canada/PA-042133)

He's seen that change develop slowly over the decades, particularly in his law career.

"I tell people that during my first 20 years of law, both as a lawyer and as a judge, I never once heard the word reconciliation, never once. Now you see it all the time. Judges are talking about it all the time," he said.

'People now cannot deny the evidence'

Questions about the next steps toward reconciliation have become more pointed as First Nations continue to search the grounds of former residential schools for more graves.

So far this year, more than 1,000 potential graves have been found near school grounds, including in Kamloops, B.C., and Marieval, Sask.

Sinclair said it's important that "the process of inquiry and investigation" focus on finding out how and why the children died, and then determining if any individuals or groups are responsible for their deaths.

However, the former lawyer said he's hesitant to pursue prosecution, because of the difficulty of "finding the victimizer," and then determining guilt beyond a reasonable doubt needed for a conviction.

Sinclair talks to Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. (Kim Kaschor/CBC)

One possible legal response, he said, would be to make it a criminal offence to deny the TRC's findings in co-ordinated disinformation campaigns.

"It's still an offence in Germany to deny the Holocaust, and it should be an offence in Canada to deny the existence of this story," he said.

The discovery of graves over the past year might not have sparked a complete awakening for Canadians en masse, Sinclair said, but he does see "an overcoming of disbelief" about what happened.

"A real grave is real evidence, and people now cannot deny the evidence," he said.

He warned that while the TRC is complete, the search for bodies continues, and with it will come more grim discoveries. But uncovering the full truth, he said, is a necessary part of that awakening.

"We have not only opened people's eyes, but we have turned people's heads," he said. "The ones who would look away now can no longer look away."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Sunday Magazine. Interview with Murray Sinclair produced by Kim Kaschor and Erin Noel.

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