OTTAWA — For Murray Sinclair, being a bridge between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada has sometimes been a struggle. After he graduated from law school in 1979, a step that felt like “joining the dark side,” he was frustrated by courts where he heard racist comments flow and saw the justice system work repeatedly against Indigenous people.
“This is killing me, literally, to do this,” Mr. Sinclair, who is Anishinaabe, recalled telling his wife, Katherine Morrisseau-Sinclair. “I’m not really helping anybody, but I’m also being seen as one of them.”
Ms. Morrisseau-Sinclair persuaded him to visit Angus Merrick, an elder from the Long Plain Indian band and an Aboriginal court worker.
The two men met in Mr. Merrick’s tepee, the elder smoking cigarettes and both of them drinking pots of tea until 6 in the evening, at which point Mr. Merrick became direct.
“In residential school, what they told us was if we want to live in this world, we have to become like the white man. We have to learn what it means to be a white man,” Mr. Sinclair remembered the elder saying.
Mr. Merrick then challenged that lesson: “You need to learn what it means to be an Anishinaabe.”
Mr. Sinclair decided to follow that advice. “And I’m still on that journey today.”
Decades later, Mr. Sinclair is a national leader in guiding Canada’s conversation on reforms for Indigenous people, most recently as a member of the Senate.
Mr. Sinclair retired this past week, leaving behind a comprehensive road map to improve Canada’s relations with Indigenous people, a legacy of fighting for justice and a history of challenging assumptions and provoking debate.
“He has a lot of authority, and that comes from respect,” said Sheila North, the former grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an Indigenous political organization in Northern Manitoba. “He has proven himself over and over again as a strong advocate. He is for Indigenous people but also for Canadians.”
Mr. Sinclair, who just turned 70 and lives north of Winnipeg in St. Andrews, Manitoba, spent four years in the Senate after leading one of the most important bodies in Canada’s recent history: the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released its final report in 2015.
The commission was part of a groundbreaking apology to Indigenous people for laws that sent children, frequently by force, to church-run boarding schools where many faced physical, cultural and sexual abuse.
The schools operated for more than a century until the last one closed in 1996, and led to the deaths of at least 3,200 children, the report found, the first tally of such deaths. Indigenous languages and cultural practices were forbidden at the schools, making them, the commission found, a form of “cultural genocide.”
“Words of apology alone are insufficient,” the report read. “Concrete actions on both symbolic and material fronts are required.”
Under Mr. Sinclair’s direction, the commission produced a detailed plan for reconciliation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to carry out. Still, more than five years later, many of its proposals have yet to be put into action.
While he did not attend boarding school, Mr. Sinclair’s family members did not escape the system. His father, Henry, and Henry’s brothers were sexually abused in Catholic residential school, so their parents, Catherine and Jim, eventually gave up their official Indian status under federal law. That allowed their children, and eventually Mr. Sinclair and his siblings whom they raised, to attend public school.
After high school, a job running children’s sports programs at a Native friendship center — a combination social club and service center — drew Mr. Sinclair into activism.
“That social activism period at the friendship center taught me that if you want to effect some change, you better be willing to involve somebody at the political level or have some political power,” he said. “And so I thought becoming a politician would be the answer.”
Law school, he said, seemed the most obvious way into politics.
Mr. Sinclair practiced criminal and civil law mainly for Indigenous clients, an often dispiriting experience. “Sometimes you have to play by those kinds of rules that make you feel a little sick to your stomach,” he said.
But one of Mr. Merrick’s observations in the tepee renewed Mr. Sinclair’s commitment.
“If you go and become a carpenter, you’ll always be a carpenter who knows the law, and people will always come to you and ask you questions,” Mr. Sinclair recalled being told. “It’s not like you can turn your back on your knowledge.”
He stuck with it.
In 1988, Mr. Sinclair was approached about becoming Manitoba’s first Indigenous judge. He hesitated, knowing he would be part of a system that disproportionately jailed Indigenous people. But several Indigenous leaders persuaded Mr. Sinclair that it would be valuable to have him on the bench.
Not long after, Mr. Sinclair was tapped to help lead an Aboriginal justice inquiry in Manitoba, a sometimes harrowing experience that included the suicide of a senior police officer who had been called to testify. Later, Mr. Sinclair would lead an emotionally charged inquiry into the deaths of 12 children during surgery that brought reforms to Canada’s medical system.
In 2009, he took on the truth and reconciliation post, but only after its first commissioner resigned and the project was in turmoil. Quickly, Mr. Sinclair started to review past commissions on Indigenous people.
One of the few that had left an impact on Canadians was a report in the 1970s that stopped the construction of a natural gas pipeline through the Northwest Territories, mostly on Indigenous land.
The head of that commission, Justice Thomas Berger, issued a finding that was heralded as a bill of rights for Indigenous people, particularly with its call to study and settle their land claims. Rather than hold hearings centrally, Justice Berger traveled throughout the region to hear testimony.
“I thought that was a good technique,” Mr. Sinclair said. “But the most important part of it was to publicize the testimony to bring the hearings into the living rooms of the people.”
It gave him the idea to publicly distribute the often-distressing accounts uncovered in his commission through social media.
“When you come through an event that is emotionally that challenging, a healing moment occurs for the person who has told you their story, but also for you as the one who has accepted the story,” Mr. Sinclair said. “So you have to know how to make that moment understood in the proper way.”
Following the release of the report, Mr. Trudeau persuaded him to join the Senate, an appointed body not generally held in high regard, as part of his program to improve its reputation.
Though the prime minister and Mr. Sinclair share a warm relationship, he has been among Mr. Trudeau’s strongest critics. Last year he strongly rebuked Mr. Trudeau’s government after a dispute over a pipeline in British Columbia led to the arrest of more than 47 Indigenous protesters on their land. Those arrests set off disruptive rail blockades that were organized in sympathy by Mohawk groups in Ontario and Quebec.
Mr. Sinclair “was always, of course, ready to speak truth to power, firmly and clearly,” Mr. Trudeau said in a statement. “But his ability to be thoughtful and constructive while doing so made him an invaluable friend and resource to me.”
Over his tenure, eight more Indigenous people have been appointed to the Senate. Mr. Sinclair could have stayed on for another five years, but he decided his time would be better spent writing an autobiography and mentoring young Indigenous lawyers.
He has no illusions about the work left in carrying out the commission’s recommendations, but getting there, a process that he has compared to climbing a mountain, will ultimately require action by individual Canadians, he said, not just their governments.
“The Canadian people need to see what it is that they could be doing, that they have a role to play here,” Mr. Sinclair said.
He added, “You were lied to as well.”