Reconciliation after truth: Justice Murray Sinclair

If Japan took over Canada tomorrow and exercised its authority, would you still want to speak English? Would you still want to wear jeans and runners instead of a kimono and geta or zori?

If Japan took over Canada tomorrow and exercised its authority, would you still want to speak English?

Would you still want to wear jeans and runners instead of a kimono and geta or zori?

That was a hypothetical situation posed by the head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Justice Murray Sinclair, who gave the Maddison Chair of Northern Justice lecture in Whitehorse this week.

He was drawing a comparison to the experience First Nations people had with residential schools.

Sinclair’s commission is touring the country, gathering stories and records. Former students have told how their mothers and grandmothers dressed them in freshly sewn clothes before sending them off with the Indian agents. When they arrived at the schools, they were separated from the siblings, stripped of their new clothes and then made to watch them burned.

Travel records prove the objective of the schools was to remove the children from the influence of their families and their communities. Children were often shipped far from home or even to other regions of the country, said Sinclair.

The level of education at the residential schools was poor. Many had no curriculum or standards. Most of the teachers had no formal training and the students were often used as cheap labour.

But all of this was kept hidden from the public in what Sinclair said was possibly the most intense “coverup” in Canadian history.

Data at the time showed nearly half of the students in the school system were dying. Conditions inside the schools were crowded, unsanitary and considered a “national crime.” But the bureaucrat who reported this was promptly fired.

Weekly pleas with local churches for money and food showed the schools could not afford to keep the students fed and healthy.

And almost from the beginning, there were reports of extreme physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Even after the stories started to get out, the schools continued to operate and the allegations of abuse were kept under wraps.

For much of his talk, Sinclair, who was Manitoba’s first aboriginal judge, spoke on residential schools in a legal context.

Like Canadians who would refuse to speak Japanese or wear wooden-planked sandals, First Nation people resisted the schools. Although they may have supported educating their children, they didn’t support having their families separated. When word started trickling out about the conditions, the resistance grew stronger.

But so, too, did the laws against aboriginal people, said Sinclair.

Parents faced legal consequences, like imprisonment, if they refused to let the Indian agents or RCMP take their children. The same was true if they tried to run and hide. A “pass” system was established, forcing aboriginal people to get signed permission from their Indian agent to leave the reserve.

Another law prevented them from seeking legal assistance. Lawyers caught helping aboriginal people were stripped of their licence, said Sinclair.

In 1891, the Citizenship Act was changed to say that “Indians” were not citizens. If they wanted to vote, they had to give up their Indian status. They were also barred from selling their produce or crafts in some places.

The residential school system was more than just wrong, said Sinclair.

Even if the abuse could be ignored, the act of taking children of one race and removing them from their families against their will, to indoctrinate them into another race’s way of doing things, is now considered an act of genocide under the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, he said.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which turns 30 this year, is helping right some of these wrongs.

Under section 35, the Canadian government is obligated to reconcile aboriginal rights and title.

But so far the government hasn’t done that, Sinclair said.

Instead, the courts have been forced to rule on aboriginal rights to turn things around.

“And as a judge I can tell you, courts are a terrible vehicle for social engineering,” said Sinclair.

But individuals can do much to help the reconciliation process move along, he said.

One of his slides simply stacked the words: “Listen, Learn, Lend a hand, Lead.”

A lot of things will have to change with how we live our lives, he said.

In terms of its legal and political structure, Canada has been built on racist thinking, said Sinclair. Courts have a culture and it’s fundamentally white-European.

There has to be change to reconcile the past, but Sinclair said he doesn’t see that happening in his lifetime.

“But I hope we start the conversation in my lifetime,” he said. And it’s clear the greatest abuse now is done by aboriginal people to themselves.

That’s not going to change until they have a conversation about respect, he said.

There will be a “spinning of wheels” unless there is more respect.

“Reconciliation is about respect.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks at a press conference in Whitehorse on March 30. Hanley announced three more COVID-19 cases in a release on Nov. 21. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three more COVID-19 cases, new exposure notice announced

The Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Brendan Hanley, announced three… Continue reading

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: COVID-19 strikes another blow at high-school students

They don’t show up very often in COVID-19 case statistics, but they… Continue reading

The Cornerstone housing project under construction at the end of Main Street in Whitehorse on Nov. 19. Community Services Minister John Streicker said he will consult with the Yukon Contractors Association after concerns were raised in the legislature about COVID-19 isolation procedures for Outside workers at the site. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Concerns raised about alternate self-isolation plans for construction

Minister Streicker said going forward, official safety plans should be shared across a worksite

The Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, pictured at a press conference in October, announced three new cases of COVID-19 on Nov. 20 as well as a new public exposure notice. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New COVID-19 cases, public exposure notice announced

The new cases have all been linked to previous cases

Beatrice Lorne was always remembered by gold rush veterans as the ‘Klondike Nightingale’. (Yukon Archives/Maggies Museum Collection)
History Hunter: Beatrice Lorne — The ‘Klondike Nightingale’

In June of 1929, 11 years after the end of the First… Continue reading

Samson Hartland is the executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. The Yukon Chamber of Mines elected a new board of directors during its annual general meeting held virtually on Nov. 17. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Yukon Chamber of Mines elects new board

The Yukon Chamber of Mines elected a new board of directors during… Continue reading

The Yukon Hospital Corporation has released its annual report for 2019-20, and — unsurprisingly — hospital visitations were down. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Annual report says COVID-19 had a large impact visitation numbers at Whitehorse General

The Yukon Hospital Corporation has released its annual report for 2019-20, and… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

City council was closed to public on March 23 due to gathering rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The council is now hoping there will be ways to improve access for residents to directly address council, even if it’s a virtual connection. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Solution sought to allow for more public presentations with council

Teleconference or video may provide opportunities, Roddick says

Megan Waterman, director of the Lastraw Ranch, is using remediated placer mine land in the Dawson area to raise local meat in a new initiative undertaken with the Yukon government’s agriculture branch. (Submitted)
Dawson-area farm using placer miner partnership to raise pigs on leased land

“Who in their right mind is going to do agriculture at a mining claim? But this made sense.”

Riverdale residents can learn more details of the City of Whitehorse’s plan to FireSmart a total of 24 hectares in the area of Chadburn Lake Road and south of the Hidden Lakes trail at a meeting on Nov. 26. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)
Meeting will focus on FireSmart plans

Riverdale residents will learn more details of the City of Whitehorse’s FireSmarting… Continue reading

The City of Whitehorse is planning to borrow $10 million to help pay for the construction of the operations building (pictured), a move that has one concillor questioning why they don’t just use reserve funds. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Councillor questions borrowing plan

City of Whitehorse would borrow $10 million for operations building

Most Read