As he prepares to retire from the Senate, Murray Sinclair says the federal government has not yet lived up to its promises around reconciliation with Indigenous people.
“There are still far too many things this government is doing to diminish the position and rights of Indigenous people,” Sinclair told host Chris Hall on CBC Radio’s The House.
Sinclair pointed to the example of legal battles around St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, in which the government is arguing in court it does not need to provide records to survivors that could help reopen compensation cases.
As he prepares to retire from the Senate in the new year, Murray Sinclair discusses the importance of new federal legislation concerning the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and his personal legacy both in and outside of the Red Chamber.9:24
If the records were not disclosed and eventually destroyed, he said, the government would be “participating in the destruction of our national memory.”
The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Sinclair has been a senator since 2016 but will be retiring at the end of January.
Sinclair also spoke to The House about recent legislation tabled by the government to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
He said implementing UNDRIP was an important step in changing the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous peoples to one founded on rights.
“What I’ve said is that we will never achieve reconciliation when one side to the dialogue sees it as an act of benevolence and one side sees it as a recognition of rights,” Sinclair said.
The bill, C-15, was tabled in the House of Commons earlier this month and is the second recent attempt to implement UNDRIP — the first, a private member’s bill put forward by then-NDP MP Romeo Saganash, was passed by the House but slowed by Conservative senators. It died when Parliament was dissolved ahead of the 2019 election.
One of the concerns raised by the senators was around language in UNDRIP referring to “free, prior and informed consent.” Some worried that this would provide Indigenous groups with a veto power over projects on traditional Indigenous land.
Sinclair told Hall that implementation of that clause will change the consultative process between the federal government and Indigenous groups from a “take it or leave” approach to one where projects can’t go forward until consent is actually given.
“Indigenous people now will be able to negotiate with a stronger hand than they ever have in the past,” he said.
Returning to legal roots
Sinclair, who was just the second Indigenous judge appointed in Canada when he reached the bench in 1988, said he will now focus part of his time mentoring Indigenous lawyers.
He said he remembered many Indigenous law students who struggled to reconcile their place in a system that had not respected their rights and recounted his own experience as a lawyer of being disrespected because of his identity — even one instance in which a judge mistook him for an accused person.
Sinclair noted there were now several members of the Senate who shared his perspective and vision, such that he was confident he was leaving the Red Chamber in “safe hands.” He said he was hopeful that vision, of the Senate as a “council of elders,” would encourage a Senate that was respected as a thoughtful, conscientious body providing oversight of the government.
He said he looked forward to going back to “what it is I always wanted to do, which is become a grandfather.”
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