'The Journal' sits down with Chancellor-designate Murray Sinclair

'Be proud of who we are as Canadians, we’re doing the right thing’ 

Chancellor-Designate Sinclair to begin his role in the fall.

This article discusses the atrocities committed in Residential Schools and may be triggering for some readers. Those seeking support may contact the Office of Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation or Four Directions. For immediate assistance, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

“I have a hard time staying retired.”

Queen’s Chancellor-Designate Murray Sinclair has an accomplished career: he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), served as a judge in Manitoba from 1988 to 2009, and was appointed to the Senate of Canada in 2016. And he hasn’t stopped working yet.

“Why did I agree to this? Certainly not because I needed to work. I have lots of other things to do,” Sinclair told The Journal from what appeared to be his office in Manitoba.

“People keep asking me to do important things, and being the chancellor at Queen’s was what sold to me.”

Sinclair said he was asked by Principal Patrick Deane and the University to assist the institution in improving its image.

“They knew that there were some limitations upon their reputation because of the history of the university and its connection to Sir John A. Macdonald.”

Sinclair added that Queen’s poor relationship with Indigenous students and faculty is something he intends to address during his time here.

“My ambition is to address that [relationship]. Not necessarily to change it, but to put it into some kind of proper context and to bring additional information to show where their errors have been made.”

“I don’t intend to try to force any changes with regard to curriculum, but I do think we need to start teaching a balanced story when it comes to Indigenous people,” he said.

“The university needs to look very closely at what they’re doing. They need to stop making assumptions that only cater to certain people’s needs.”

When asked how he will build his relationship with the Queen’s community in the upcoming semester, Sinclair said he is optimistic that the return to in-person learning will help foster connections.

During the interview, The Journal had the opportunity to listen to Sinclair comment on the process of implementing the 94 calls-to-action from “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future,” the summary of the TRC’s final report.

The report contained 94 calls-to-action for the Canadian government.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report dedicated an entire volume to the fact that there were thousands of children who died in school. Some of them were murdered, some of them died from injuries, some of them died of neglect, and many died through disease and improper living conditions,” Sinclair explained.

“What we asked ourselves right at the beginning is what needs to be done. Obviously, the first question we asked is ‘how many are we talking about?’, ‘where did these things happen?’”

According to Sinclair, these questions couldn’t be answered due to the principles set out in TRC mandate. If the investigation exceeded the mandate, it would count as a violation of the court orders of the TRC.

“We saw that there was no allowance within mandate for us to be investigating that question,” he said. 

“We asked the Government of Canada to fund the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to do that work as a side project, to look extensively at the question of children who died in residential schools, what happened to them after they died, and to do that, we have put together a budget that exceeded a million dollars.”

Sinclair said the federal government turned down the request.

“The government didn’t want the TRC to get into that, they just wanted the TRC to do what was set out in the agreement.”

“That being said, we decided to put the resources we had into research to look at the question, and we wrote a small volume of report.”

While the final report demanded 94 call-to-actions to the federal government, only nine have been completed.

“They’ve never given any indication that they were implemented, and I think now in the face of evidence that came out of the Kamloops, [the federal government] has given some indication to do that.”

“But we can’t have a registry for children who we don’t know died in schools, so more extensive investigation is still needed,” Sinclair said.

Sinclair added the 215 bodies of children found in Kamloops is just a portion of the children who actually died in the residential school system.

“They haven’t looked at all the ground areas yet, where they know that there might be some burial sites, and they haven’t looked at other schools, where we know that there are more unmarked graves.”

“The experience of being the chair of the TRC taught me the importance of truth, determination, and how to utilize it in order to develop a plan of action going forward. The difficulties of discovering the truth of a given situation was something I’d always been well aware of as a judge, but it was putting it into the context of political actions,” he said.

Despite the changes and improvements both Queen’s and Canada must implement to strengthen their relationships with Indigenous Peoples, Sinclair ended the interview on an optimistic note. 

“Be proud of who we are as Canadians, because we’re doing the right thing. We know what we have done wrong, we know that doing wrong is easy and doing right is hard, but we all have a commitment to doing the right thing,” Sinclair said.

“I’ve said that many times from the beginning of the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we’re trying to get people to understand—and that is an important dialogue that we all need to have.”

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