Forty years ago, on my first day of law, I was sitting in a discussion circle with classmates, and we were asking ourselves why we were in law. Some talked about wanting to make lots of money. Some wanted to change the world. And some wanted to be famous as trial lawyers or counsel in some other capacity. But for me, I only wanted to understand why I did not know the laws of my people. I wanted to know why Canada did not know the laws of my people too. I wanted to know why a federal law passed by the Government of Canada could define my people and that we could not define ourselves. I wanted to know why I could not speak the language of my grandmother or know the history and the traditions of my people – the Anishinaabe. I wanted to know why my grandmother, along with so many others, believed by not teaching me those things she was somehow saving my life.
I wanted to know why and how in 1913 my family and Neighbours could be forcibly removed from our traditional lands, from the prime agricultural lands along the Red River. From the very reserve that the Crown had agreed to set aside for our people in 1870, just forty-three years earlier, and be forcibly marched two hundred miles to the north to flood-prone swampy land, virtually uninhabitable, and unusable far to the north – to live there forever. I wanted to know why and how my tall, silent and strong grandfather had been able to resist that forcible removal and to remain on his farm. And why and how a handful of other families had been able to do so as well, despite the use of the army to move others along. I wanted to know why that displacement of our people was never taught in the schools on the very land from which our people had been removed.
I wanted to know why my young and beautiful mother had died at the age of twenty-five from tuberculosis, a disease that killed our people by the thousands, and which few of the families of my non-Indigenous friends had ever experienced. I wanted to know why my serious and stern grandmother, who took us in after my mother died in order to raise us when she was sixty-three and my grandfather was almost seventy, was not able to grow up in the house of her own mother. Why she was raised in a convent by nuns, unlike her seemingly silly sisters, who we called “the big aunties, whose laughing energy overwhelmed our small house when they came to us each summer.
I wanted to know why my grandmother and my father, as well as my uncles and aunts who went to residential schools, never talked about it. Unlike the parents of my non-Indigenous friends, who loved to tell stories about their teachers and their classmates and who held high school reunions. I wanted to know about the sense of injustice that was carried by all of the adults in my life, in my family, in my community, like a sword and a shield ready to be wielded at a moment’s notice at the smallest slight or glance or word.
I wanted to know if anything could be done about that sense of injustice or if we would spend the rest of our lives in virtual and at times real conflict with our non-Indigenous friends and neighbors. I wanted to know if all of the things my family had experienced had happened to any others. And that’s why I went to law school – I wanted to know why and I wanted to know what I could do about it.
I have dedicated my life to that process of discovery, and it has not been easy, but as you know I have shared its burdens, as well as its joys, with many people along the way. I have seen many amazing things and borne witness to some amazing developments over the years. I have suffered personally, at the huge holes in my heart left from losing members of my family and some of my friends far too early. I cry inside each time hear of a young Indigenous person who has taken his or her life because the point of despair has become too intense for him or for her. My fears for my nieces, my daughters, and my wife, my sisters and my aunties increase each time I read in the news about another missing or murdered Indigenous women or girl. And though I do not know them, a piece of my heart is ripped away, and my sense of rage that thesis somehow connected to our colonial and racist past increases.
But I have also seen great strength and resilience in the Elders and the survivors who have come through this genocidal past with hearts still filled with love for their families and for yours – respect for the innocent ones who have had no hand in this, and hope for the future. I have shared much time with them, and they have held me back from my own pit of rage and despair, so that I may share the knowledge and appreciate the joy and excitement of young people such as you on the edge of greatness. They have made me see that we can change. They have made me see that I can change.
During much of my life, I have struggled with those personal responsibilities alongside of my growing public ones, and I have to say I was constantly faced with the guilt of inadequacy as I saw that no change was occurring in those things, I believed to be important over these many years. My process of discovery has uncovered a lot of painful things, painful for not only me, but painful also for this country.
Quite frankly, Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples is nothing in which this country can take any pride. But I sense that we are on the cusp of something special as this country begins to come to terms without history, and you are on the leading edge of that.
Since we released the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and our Calls to Action, I have been inspired at the public reaction to what we have said, and I have been inspired at the efforts of so many segments of society to work to make things better.
I hope that the new generation of professionals and scholars can see that they are not just the bearers of burdens of history, but they are also the beneficiaries of our new awareness. They are not just inheriting the painful legacy of the past; they are also inheriting the awareness and knowledge of why and how things happened. As well as a framework for defining Canada’s new relationship with its Indigenous peoples. That is the edge of the future upon which we sit.
Armed with that knowledge, we will now be looking to you to continue the conversation of reconciliation which we have begun. We will be looking to them to move this country of ours into a new and truthful sense of itself. To shed the cloak of pain and shame, and to walk with Canada’s Indigenous peoples into a future where our children will be able to talk to and about each other in a more respectful way.
You have to believe that doing something about this history is the right thing to do and you have to be fearless in doing what you can. This is not a time for the timid. It is a time for the daring. And I invite you to join me in this challenge. I invite you to move forward and let us dare greatly together.
[Transcribed by Charlotte Munroe]
The article was first published by The Decolonization and Reconciliation Handbook.
Senator Murray Sinclair served as Co-chair of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba and as Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As head of the TRC, he participated in hundreds of hearings across Canada, culminating in the issuance of the TRC’ landmark report in 2015. Previously, Senator Sinclair served the justice system in Manitoba for over twenty-five years. He was the first Aboriginal judge appointed in Manitoba and he was very active within his profession and his community. He has won numerous awards. Including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Manitoba Bar Association’s Equality Award (2001) and its Distinguished Service Award (2016) and has received honorary doctorates from eight Canadian universities. Senator Sinclair was appointed to the Senate on April 2, 2016.
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