The Blue Quills Indian Residential School band in St. Paul, Alta. performs during the 1950s.


The Blue Quills Indian Residential School band in St. Paul, Alta. performs during the 1950s.

March 17, 2014

The relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians is faulty and needs to be fixed, says Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

What is needed is a relationship founded on mutual respect, he told some 650 participants attending a banquet held in conjunction with a two-day 10,000 Healing Steps: Resilience and Community conference in Saskatoon.

The conference was held to consider new ways to support those trying to leave a gang lifestyle to become productive citizens.

Sinclair began his keynote talk by pointing to the disproportionately high number of aboriginal youth and adults involved in the criminal justice system.

"Young people in the aboriginal community have become over-represented in the justice system, far greater than their presence in the population," he said, noting between 70 and 80 per cent of those incarcerated in Western Canadian jails are aboriginal men and women.

Rates of victimization are also higher – for instance, aboriginal women are 80 to 90 per cent more likely to be victims of a crime than non-aboriginal women.

In addition to drawing on his experiences in the justice system as a lawyer and a judge, and his work gathering thousands of hours of testimony and information about Indian residential schools as part of the TRC, Sinclair also pointed to his personal experiences to provide insights into the situation facing aboriginal youth.

He described growing up in an aboriginal community, raised by parents who attended residential schools, and his own experience in the public school system, in which mutual respect between cultures was not part of the picture.

Sinclair summarized the horrific experience of many who attended residential schools, including those who have qualified for compensation for abuse they suffered, and the thousands of children who died while attending the schools over seven generations.

"It speaks also to the fact that, as parents of children, these (residential school survivors) were damaged people, who were attempting to raise families without the knowledge base of how to do that," he said of the long-term impact of the residential school system.

"An institution is not going to teach you how to relate to each other as mother and child, as father and son; it's not going to give you the experience of being in a family."

As a result, the damage has had a lasting impact on individuals, families and communities in many ways and across many generations, Sinclair said.

But even that is not the complete picture, he added, pointing to the systemic racism of the education system – both at residential schools and in public schools – that continues even today.


"We were taught – and I speak from experience when I tell you this – that aboriginal people were inferior, that our people were irrelevant to the history of this country and to the evolution of this great nation," he said.

Judge Murray Sinclair

Judge Murray Sinclair

"We were taught that we were very lucky that the European colonists came here and saved us from our fatal existence. We were taught that they saved us from – not just hell – but they also saved us from freezing to death, they saved us from starving to death, they saved us from disappearing from the face of this earth, even though we had been here for at least 50,000 years before that without their help."

Sinclair recalled the shame he would feel, reading about some of the things recorded in history books – such as the way Jesuit missionaries were treated by tribes in Eastern Canada.

"Not one mention was made about the atrocities that were visited upon men and women of Indian tribes – of children of those Indian tribes," he said. "We were always made to look like the savages."

Sinclair asserted this kind of systemic racism makes it difficult for aboriginal children to pursue education.

For instance, when he started public school in Grade 1, Sinclair was in a class of some 60 aboriginal children, but he was the only one of them who graduated from high school and went on to university.


Aboriginal youth dropped out – and continue to drop out – because they do not like being in school, Sinclair said.

"They did not like the way that they were talked about, they did not like the way that they were treated by the teachers, and they did not like the way they were treated by their fellow students," he said.

"Those who came from those European settler nations were taught to believe in the mythology of their own superiority – and it doesn't take much for children to use that to their advantage on the playground."

When it comes to school drop-out rates and lack of educational achievement of aboriginal children in this country, "we have to understand that it's partly because of that, if not entirely because of it," said Sinclair.

"When we look around us and we ask ourselves why are our children getting involved in the kinds of behaviour that results in their becoming identified as individuals who are subject to the criminal justice system, or the child welfare system, it is partly because of the way this society treats the image of our people."

The systematic racism that creates a system with few positive aboriginal portrayals in books or movies continues to take its toll, he said. "That needs to change, because it is still happening. As hard as we are working to change it, we need to do more."


Indigenous writers need to take hold of this, he said.

"Our artists need to step forward, need to step up and need to start portraying our people as human beings," he said. "They need to talk about us like real human beings and not as victims and not as savages; not as heathens and not as criminals."

Children today are still taught the doctrine of discovery which says that Christopher Columbus "discovered" this continent, he said. In fact, his arrival brought about the death of some nine million indigenous people in the decade that followed.

Sinclair called for First Nations schools to lead the way in providing aboriginal children "with an education that gives them a sense of pride, a sense of self-worth, a sense of self-respect, and a sense and an ability that not only do they belong, but they can succeed, and they must succeed – because our future depends on this as a people."


Members of the TRC believe that reconciliation in this country is going to take a long time and won't happen in his lifetime or his children's lifetime, Sinclair said. "It took us a long time to create this unfair, unjust, unequal, uncaring situation; it will take us a long time to fix it."

The TRC has helped to reveal and publicize what happened in residential schools, and at times, non-aboriginal people express shame about what Canada has done to aboriginal people over the years, he said.

"My message to Canada is: you should not feel ashamed about this, you should feel committed to doing something about it. Shame will get us nowhere; guilt will get us nowhere; anger will get us nowhere; rage will get us nowhere. We must commit to working together to fix this."