Facebook Live: Replay our conversation with Senator Murray Sinclair
Watch the video from our Facebook Live broadcast on June 28, 2016 with Senator Murray Sinclair about the role of commissions in Canada.
Katelin Peltier: Hello. My name is Katelin Peltier and on behalf of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, I'm really pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Senator Murray Sinclair about his role as the Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to hear his views about commissions' inquiries in Canada.
For over six years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, commonly known as the TRC, led by Senator Sinclair along with Commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild and Dr. Marie Wilson, worked tirelessly to reveal the truth about Indian residential schools in Canada, and to provide a safe place for those who suffered to tell their stories and to continue on their healing journey.
Under his leadership, the commission collected statements from more than 7,000 former students, and more than 600 First Nations were consulted. Remarkably, his work struck a balance between revealing old wounds and providing the opportunity for healing.
Thank you Senator for taking the time to speak with me today.
Murray Sinclair (Canadian Senator, former judge, chair of Truth and Reconciliation Commission): Oh you're welcome.
Peltier: As you know, in December 2015, the Government of Canada announced their support and commitment to a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The pre-inquiry engagement sessions that took place across the country with survivors, families, and loved ones finished in February of this year, and we now anticipate a full launch of the inquiry, including a commission, in the next couple of months.
To start, can you share with Canadians a bit about your experience leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and including what outcomes you're most proud of?
Senator Sinclair: Well, I think there are probably two components of the commission that people need to keep in mind. One outcome that we probably are most proud of is that we brought the commission from a position where it had stumbled badly at the outset and therefore lost the confidence of survivors and probably the general public, and we worked hard to re-establish the credibility of the commission at the beginning, and I think we did so. So that was a major accomplishment in and of itself.
But also the commission itself created an environment in which survivors could speak openly about what happened to them -- at least those who came forward -- to speak openly about what happened to them and share their stories in a manner that assisted other survivors as well, because there was a lot of feeling at the outset that people would not come forward, that people were not ready to share, and we started out specifically for the purpose of trying to establish that this could be a healing process for people. So we incorporated as many Indigenous approaches to the work that we did. We used shared circles, we used elders, smudging, opening prayers elders were engaged in everything we did. And so, in creating that environment and that atmosphere, I think, was also key.
Ultimately though, it was the survivors themselves and their stories who I think made the TRC what it was, and that it established the credibility of the TRC for survivors, but also for the Canadian public.
Our intention all along was to open the eyes of the Canadian public to the truth of the residential school experience, not so much through the words of experts and the words of the commissioners, but through the stories and experiences of residential school survivors. And by showcasing them as we did in public hearings through the use of webcasts and video recordings, that raw emotion and feeling that they brought forward in the course of their stories was compelling. And I don't think anybody who watched survivors giving their testimonies at our hearings walked away not believing.
And then ultimately out of all of that of course was the obligation of the commissioners to put together a report based on all of those stories and those experiences. And I think we're very proud of the report, and we feel that the report itself came at a time in Canadian history where people were open to what it was that we had to say. And that was the most, sort of, significant feature, I think, of our work ultimately, was that we have a report now that people can use.
And at the time that we issued it, I said that people in government at that moment, in June of 2015, and later in December 2015, they may not be ready for everything that we said and for everything we called upon them to do, but ultimately people will be ready, and we provided them with that road map.
Peltier: And it's a fantastic road map. I've had the opportunity to read some of the volumes.
Senator Sinclair: Thank you.
Peltier: Looking in a broader sense, what do you see as a role of commissions in Canada and what they can accomplish?
Senator Sinclair: Probably the most significant role is of course the public inquiry aspect, and that is to put on public display, or for the public to watch, the words of those who are affected by the events that gave rise to the inquiry to begin with. A public inquiry that does all of its work behind closed doors, I don't think has the intended impact or the useful impact that a public inquiry has.
A public inquiry by its nature should bring the public along with it. The public should be invited to sit and listen. It should be invited to hear, because that's why we call it a public inquiry. Otherwise, you know, we would just assign it to some task force and tell them to go out and come back with your report. Those kinds of inquiries are also useful for purposes of bringing forward the information, but I think a public hearing's process cannot be overstated, and the importance of that is quite significant.
And I think the importance that it will bring to the families who are participating, to the individuals who are affected, or the individuals who or whose actions are being scrutinized, will all benefit from a public process because, at the end of the day, the public will be able to gauge for itself what it is that the commission has heard, and will be able to better decide for itself the extent to which the public report of that commission will be worthy of support.
Peltier: So that leads nicely into the question about the future of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry, and the commission. What would you say that families and the general public should expect from this inquiry in terms of the outcomes of the process?
Senator Sinclair: I'm a little concerned that people have higher expectations than any commission inquiry can possibly deliver. Commissions of inquiry are by their very nature not trials. They're not courts, so they cannot convict people, they cannot hold criminal trials, they cannot prosecute, they cannot sentence, they cannot do what a criminal prosecution can do, or even a civil trial court can do. What they can do is they can inquire, and they can hold those participants whose participation is brought to light, publicly accountable for what has occurred. But a commission cannot accuse, and we have a reason for that and it's because we've established a criminal justice system which is the system to which we turn when it comes to prosecuting and incarcerating convicted people who have done wrong.
But the problem is that there are limitations to what a criminal justice trial can do, or a civil trial for that matter. And the public inquiry process can have the benefit of allowing more flexibility in the approach of allowing people to testify in different ways than the limitations of criminal trial rules and civil trial rules impose, and to allow the commissioners to engage in more informal conversations and processes that will allow it to make some determinations based upon common sense and practicalities.
So, I think that what the public and the families, particularly of the victims of the various cases, can expect from the commission, that this is the opportunity to engage in a dialogue, an open dialogue with each other and with the Canadian public about what this all means about the overall impact of the state of affairs that resulted from missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. And what Canada needs to do about it to prevent it from happening again.
And so, it's part of the, also part of the overall story of colonization in this country, and I think the TRC has, I think, shown us that colonization permeated everything that Canada did and that Canadians did for so long, that we failed to see sometimes just where that colonialism still exists. And this, I think, is going to end up being shown as an example of that.
Peltier: That is really interesting, the point you mentioned about the colonialism and just tying it into the TRC, how it, like, the framework of reconciliation has been set, as we mentioned. How do you see this inquiry fitting into that overall process?
Senator Sinclair: Well, it was not an area that the TRC could look at, or looked at because it was a very specific set of issues, particularly relating to the situation concerning, not the survivors of residential schools or those who were at residential schools but more, I think, upon their children and their grandchildren, or their daughters and their granddaughters. And so, because it was one or two steps removed from the experiences of those who were in the schools, we were limited in terms of how much we could look at it.
Now the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls did come up frequently during the course of the TRC's work and we do talk about it in our report as an example of what the impacts of residential schools have had upon Aboriginal people in Canadian society, but I think the specific cases that will be explored and the common themes that will be discovered relating to those cases are really going to be what's interesting to all of us.
Peltier: Well, I really want to thank you Senator for taking the time to speak with us today and share your views and your stories, and your experience about the TRC and how this inquiry process and what how it can be a help.
Senator Sinclair: Well, you're more than welcome, and anytime you have any questions, I'll be glad to try to answer them.
Peltier: I may take you up on that.
Senator Sinclair: I know you will.
Peltier: Thank you.