Indigenous Success Stories

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

Murray Sinclair on his life’s new rhythm, same clear purpose

May 29, 2024

After decades in the public eye, the Indigenous advocate and former commissioner pivots to new chapter

Murray Sinclair visits Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School in Selkirk, where a mural of the former senator was painted on the wall by a Winnipeg artist and some students.SHANNON VANRAES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail: It’s a bright but crisp Tuesday morning in Winnipeg and Murray Sinclair is about to do what he’s done countless times before – deliver a speech to a packed room.

This time, as he makes his way to the front of a room inside the RBC Convention Centre, Mr. Sinclair is assisted by two men, who each grab one of his arms, to climb a couple of steps at the side of the stage.

There is a chair set out for him, which he slowly sits down in. He then takes a breath and begins to address the room.

Wearing a beaded vest made by his wife, Katherine, which signifies he’s a member of the Fish Clan of the Anishinaabe, Mr. Sinclair greets those gathered for Manitoba’s public-safety summit and says he regrets he can’t stand to deliver his remarks.

After decades of embracing a public-facing life while advocating for the rights of Indigenous people in this country, notably as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mr. Sinclair is taking part in fewer appearances like this one because of the state of his health.

Murray Sinclair speaks to an individual in the hallway inside Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School in Selkirk, Man. on April 30.SHANNON VANRAES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

These days, the 73-year-old’s life has a slower rhythm. He is staying close to Winnipeg. His baritone voice, used as a lawyer, judge, commissioner and senator, is heard less frequently, while his efforts continue to be deeply felt.

As he speaks to the crowd, Mr. Sinclair’s drive remains clear. The same purpose has propelled him since childhood.

He shares a story about his grandmother, Catherine Simard – his kookum. She attended the Fort Alexander Residential School as a novitiate, whose role was to essentially be a servant to nuns.

Along with Mr. Sinclair’s grandfather, Ms. Simard raised her grandchildren after their mother, Florence, died of a stroke. Mr. Sinclair was one year old at the time of Florence’s death.

Ms. Simard wanted her grandson to become a priest while he wanted to go to university. Eventually, she relented and agreed to sign required documentation.

But she made an appeal that has played on in his mind ever since.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Okay, I understand. So, here’s my request. If I sign these, you have to promise that you will always take care of the people. You have to promise me that.’ And so, I said, ‘I promise you I will do that.’”

These words have been Mr. Sinclair’s guide. When he faces an important decision, he wonders what his kookum would think. Many times – in dreams, he says – she’s appeared before him to indicate: “So far, so good.”

“I am always guided by the sense of responsibility to family and to community,” he says. “Everything I’ve ever done in my life has been about that question: ‘What is it that I can do to help our family, our community to be safer?’”

This winter, Mr. Sinclair moved into assisted living, along with his wife, who has been medically vulnerable in the past few years. He lives with congestive heart failure, which affects his heartbeat and the way he breathes.

Murray Sinclair visits birds named Bonnie and Clyde inside an assisted-living residence in Winnipeg on April 30.SHANNON VANRAES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Two zebra finches, seen on April 30, have become friends with Murray Sinclair.SHANNON VANRAES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

He also has lymphedema, which caused a buildup of fluid in his legs. Though his legs have been drained of fluid, he lost a lot of muscle mass that affects strength, which he says means they do not work as well.

He also doesn’t drive much any more, despite still having a licence. Mr. Sinclair often gets help from his kids or from his assistant, James, to get around.

Inside the assisted-living building, it hasn’t taken him long to form bonds. He’s known for chatting up staff and residents alike, including Bonnie and Clyde.

Bonnie and Clyde are zebra finches, small songbirds known for their social nature. Using a walker, he heads down from his unit to visit the birds in the afternoon, along with their four babies. He lobbied to see them named Bezhig, Niizh, Niswi and Niiwin – one, two, three and four in Ojibwe.

When he stands by their cage, he talks to the birds and gives them instructions, such as to stop fighting. He also sits near them to complete crossword puzzles from The New York Times and The Washington Post.

But Mr. Sinclair is not settled into a life of full retirement. He has returned to law practice at Cochrane Saxberg LLP to mentor young lawyers. He’s also been writing his memoirs, Who We Are: Four Questions For a Life and a Nation. The questions that inspired the book are: “Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? Who am I?”

Mr. Sinclair started writing his memoirs as a letter to his granddaughter, whose English name is Sarah, after he suffered a minor stroke. He feared then that he may not be around as she grows up.

The book, expected to be published this fall, will look at the future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada and include experiences that shaped him as a man, a father of five and a grandfather of five.

Mr. Sinclair is best known for his work leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which spent six years examining the lasting effects of Indian Residential Schools and presented a final report in 2015. The commission’s work, and its 94 calls to action, have formed a blueprint for change for the country.

He is also recognized for other roles, such as serving as co-commissioner of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. Established in 1988, it was created in response to the murder of Helen Betty Osborne and the shooting death of J.J. Harper after an encounter with a Winnipeg police officer. The events raised significant questions about how the justice system was failing Indigenous people.

Mr. Sinclair was Manitoba’s first Indigenous judge. Additionally, he conducted a pediatric cardiac inquiry called after 12 children died in 1994 while undergoing or shortly after having surgery at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre.

In 2016, he was appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and he retired from that role in January, 2021. The following July, he was named as the first-ever Indigenous person to serve as the chancellor of Queen’s University. He decided not to seek reappointment but will stay on at Queen’s as a special adviser to the principal on reconciliation. 

Mr. Sinclair grew up in Selkirk, Man. The small town, which has a population of approximately 10,500 people, is evidently proud of its connection to him.

There is a Murray Sinclair Park, which Mayor Larry Johannson said “will serve as a constant reminder to young people who play there that they too can grow up in our community and accomplish great things.”

Perry Bellegarde, who served as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, march during the Walk for Reconciliation on May 31, 2015 in Gatineau, Que.JUSTIN TANG/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Inside the Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School, the cafeteria is called Senator Sinclair Commons. A mural of him was painted on the wall by Winnipeg artist Charlie Johnston, along with some students. During a recent visit, Mr. Sinclair said he admired the effort put into it and said, “It’s nice to be honoured in that way.”

The area is filled with lasting childhood memories. One house – now gone – where he lived with his grandparents, north of Selkirk, was located close to the Red River and he used to swim there.

Mr. Sinclair also fondly recalls growing up alongside his “twin” (well, almost). His late brother, a massive Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan called Buddy (whose legal name was Henry Jr.), was born a year after Murray and was his “comrade-in-arms.”

While he is lauded for his ability to speak about the country’s most difficult moments, Mr. Sinclair, whose Ojibwe name is Mizanay Gheezhik, meaning “the One Who Speaks of Pictures in the Sky,” is a warm and social person at his core.

When you show him a picture of a child – which is pretty much a must if you’re a parent who shares any amount of time with him – his face lights up with a wide smile. His quirky sense of humour is a hallmark of his personality. Take, for example, when he dressed up as a bumblebee to impress his granddaughter for Halloween. And then there was the time he was Shrek.

Niigaan Sinclair, Mr. Sinclair’s son, a well-known commentator on Indigenous issues and a professor at the University of Manitoba, says his father carries “a spirit of humour” to cope with some “very, very hard things.”

He says his father also loves people – when he’d go with his dad to the mall to run a simple errand, such as getting a tube of toothpaste at a drugstore, it would somehow turn into a four-hour trip.

“Dad can’t not talk to people and visit with people,” he says. “Of course, he knows everybody because he’s done everything.”

Murray Sinclair pauses and places his hands on the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after it was released on Dec. 15, 2015 in Ottawa.ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Niigaan says his father is still the same way and he wants to hear people’s stories. He says his dad also carries the weight of some of the most horrific ones in the country’s history.

As the head commissioner of the TRC, his father was “the listener” who heard brutal and violent accounts from the perspective of survivors and what they experienced during their childhoods at residential schools.

“How could you not have that burden to carry for the rest of your life?” Niigaan says. “At this phase of his life, it’s not just physical health. It’s the fact that he’s – for his entire career – helped this country through its most difficult and darkest chapters.”

But he says a remarkable thing about his dad is how he is “able to carry those stories a little bit lighter” because of his commitment to traditional Anishinaabe ceremonies, spending time with his children, his grandchildren and in Winnipeg and Treaty 1 territory.

Mr. Sinclair makes it known it was a text message from Manitoba’s new Premier, Wab Kinew, sent only a few days prior, that led to his appearance at the public-safety summit. He said he usually requires more notice to get somewhere, but he told Mr. Kinew: “Because it’s you, I’ll do it.”

The two go way back – to the time when Wab, now 42, was learning to crawl.

The Sinclair and Kinew families founded an Anishinaabe preschool together. The idea was fuelled by a desire to ensure their children learned the Ojibwe language, as well as their culture. The program began in the living room of the Sinclair home and eventually they secured space through the Winnipeg school division for it. The families remain close.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shares an embrace with Murray Sinclair as they take part in ceremonies for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Ottawa on Sept. 30, 2022.SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

At the ceremony last October, Mr. Sinclair called the swearing-in of the new Premier “Manitoba’s true act of reconciliation.”

Mr. Kinew, on the other hand, sees Mr. Sinclair as “the living embodiment of reconciliation in Canada” – someone he describes as a wise and calm presence who is focused on bringing people together.

“To me that is what a reconciliation is all about,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Kinew also feels indebted to Mr. Sinclair.

“You don’t get the opportunities that I’ve enjoyed in my life without the contributions of Murray Sinclair,” he said. “As much as I feel like I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude, I hope all Canadians feel the same way.”

Looking at the future, Mr. Kinew believes his mentor “will always have a tremendous role in the public discourse of this country.”

At this juncture of his life, Mr. Sinclair sees himself having a strong sense of who he is and a good sense of humour. He admits, when speaking of his energy levels, that he doesn’t “last long” and he knows when it’s time to rest.

“I don’t know about that, but okay,” Niigaan says with a chuckle. “He will give and give and give. And sometimes, he needs others to remind him of the importance of loving himself.”

When people reach a certain age, especially after a long career in public service, Niigaan says, they need to determine the contribution they will continue to make while focusing on family and community.

Niigaan says his father needs care and support with his health. In turn, the family wants to spend as much time as they can with him.

“He also wants to give to us the stories that perhaps he hasn’t shared for most of our lives,”Niigaan says.

“These are things that I think he wants to give to us before he travels to the west as they say in our culture, which is, enters the next spiritual phase of his life, where he goes and visits our relatives.”

There, people like Mr. Sinclair’s grandmother – his beloved kookum – will be waiting for him.