'Somebody's got to open that door': Murray Sinclair's path from the bench to the Senate

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

'I'm honoured to represent the Indigenous perspective in the Senate'

Before heading to the Senate in 2016, Murray Sinclair served as Manitoba's first Indigenous judge in 1988. He would later head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2009. (The Canadian Press)

Sen. Murray Sinclair remembers turning down offers to be a judge — twice.

Until Phil Fontaine, Elijah Harper, and Eric Robinson convinced him to accept the appointment.

"I have to go to the bench because they said somebody's got to open that door," recalled Sinclair, who was a lawyer specializing in Indigenous legal issues at that time.

Sinclair said they told him he could quit "in a while and go back to practising law, but we have to make sure that there's a path for people to follow."

In 1988, Sinclair became Manitoba's first — and Canada's second — Indigenous judge. In the same year, he was named co-commissioner of the province's Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

He would go on to serve as chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2009, before becoming a senator in 2016. 

Unreserved's Rosanna Deerchild spoke to Sinclair about his role in the Senate, residential schools and minority voices in politics. Here is part of their conversation.

Over the last couple of years, the Senate has received a lot of attention for the actions of Senator Lynn Beyak, mainly over her statements about residential schools. As the chairman for the TRC, you heard testimonies from many survivors. How does it feel to hear a colleague discuss residential schools in that way?

To a certain extent, I was prepared to accept the criticism that Senator Beyak had levelled that she didn't see the stories and hadn't heard the stories of the people who had worked in the schools who had tried to do some good, and the people who had come out of the schools who had not been abused. 

But that reflects the fact that she and many others had not read the report because in the report, we talked about them.

The TRC final report is a detailed account of the experiences of indigenous children in the residential school system over a 100-year period. 1:43

We talked about the former employees who tried to do good and the relationships that they formed with survivors, and we talked about the survivors who had not been abused. 

That's a minority of survivors based upon the numbers that came out through the compensation process.

You learn to cope by minimizing yourself, by shrinking, by not being seen, by becoming invisible.- Murray Sinclair on the impact of residential schools

But at the same time ... when you live in an institution ... the fact that you're not abused, when everybody else around you seemingly is being abused, provides its own sense of terror and trauma as well because you're growing up in an environment in which you could be next.

And so you learn to cope by minimizing yourself, by shrinking, by not being seen, by becoming invisible. 

And that's one of the impacts of residential school on the lives of those who may not have been abused while they were there, and we pointed that out in our report.

Currently there are nine Indigenous senators out of a possible 105. Do you feel pressure to represent only the Indigenous perspective in the Senate?

I'm honoured to represent the Indigenous perspective in the Senate … I don't feel pressured at all.

I think that for too long in the halls of power in Parliament, that voice has been unheard.

"Why don't residential school survivors just get over it?" Senator Murray Sinclair's reply. 1:32

It's very much like the women's movement. For the longest time, there were no women in the Senate. 

And it's their presence which has not only changed the way that matters are dealt with but simply changes the environment, the atmosphere, and the fact that things get raised that would otherwise not have been raised.

We look at every bill … with a view to what impact is this going to have on the Indigenous community — the lives of Indigenous people in this country. So much like we do a gender analysis of legislation, now we're doing and trying to do an Indigenous analysis of legislation too.

In the last federal election, there was a record number of Indigenous candidates. On the surface, it seems like Indigenous issues are being taken more seriously by the federal government. Have you seen a change?

The fact that the political parties, which are still in control of the process, are running more and more Indigenous candidates is very similar to the experience of political parties running more and more female candidates. 

Essentially they become sacrificial lambs.

I think initially that's the way it's being treated. So they'll pick a riding in which they say, "Well, you know, we can't get a good business guy to run here so let's pick a visible minority or let's pick a woman." 

A growing number of Indigenous youth are able to combine Western education with the knowledge of their traditional ancestry, says Murray Sinclair, pictured here in Ottawa in 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

We'll nominate him or her, and then we'll be able to say that ... we're upholding our responsibility here by trying to show that we are able to attract those kinds of candidates, that we do represent those interests, when in reality there's no hope in hell ... that person ever winning that riding.

Becoming the sacrificial lamb may be a starting point, but it's when they start selecting candidates based upon ability to reflect those varied interests — including women's interests or Indigenous interests — and succeed that I think we will be effectively changing. 

We do see some breakthroughs though. We've seen [Mumilaaq Qaqqaq] in the North being voted [and] Jody Wilson-Raybould [winning as an Independent MP]. Does that give you hope for the future of Indigenous politics?

We have so many more of our youth who are going to university, who are getting degrees, who are becoming career-oriented professionals, and who are able to combine that Western education … with the knowledge of their traditional ancestry — their roots, their ceremonies —  that they are able to mix all of that into the way that they approach their work. 

I remember at one point in my career — early on after I graduated from law school, I wanted to quit law because I was so frustrated at the way the court system was functioning.

An elder by the name of Angus Merrick … when I went to see him and told [him] of my frustration and my decision to leave law, he said to me, "Your problem is that you know all what it means to be a lawyer, but you don't know what it means to be Anishinaabe. You have to learn what it means to Anishinaabe."

And that's what our young people today are starting university with — some knowledge of what it means to be Anishinaabe or Cree or Mohawk.

Produced by Stephanie Cram. Q&A edited for length and clarity