December 6, 2019

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Reconciliation means responsibility

The expectations for the report Sinclair, the chairman of the TRC, will deliver Tuesday are growing

WAYNE GLOWACKI / FREE PRESS FILES

The expectations for the report Sinclair, the chairman of the TRC, will deliver Tuesday are growing

OTTAWA — With just a few days left before he releases the first part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, Justice Murray Sinclair is nervous.

"I begin this next week with trepidation," he said, in an interview with the Free Press during a brief break from the "chaos" of the final preparations.

The expectations for the report Sinclair, the chairman of the TRC, will deliver Tuesday are growing. The hopes and dreams of residential school survivors rest on its pages.

The document will not be the final TRC report. That will be a six-volume, 1,200 page, two-million word tome that is not expected until mid-to-late fall. It's mostly written and laid-out but will take several months to actually print.

Tuesday's book will be a 300-page executive summary, including all the recommendations Sinclair and his two commissioners have made after listening to the stories of 7,200 survivors and pouring through millions of documents and photographs from residential schools.

Sinclair moved the TRC to Winnipeg in 2009, hoping to give survivors some separation from the federal government that created the residential schools in the first place. He decided to return to Ottawa for the four days of events that mark the conclusion of the six-year TRC mandate because that is where it all started. But he didn't do it because he is delivering the report to the government's doorstep.

In fact, he doesn't actually expect much from the government at all.

"Based on our experience, governments are not going to do anything if we leave it with them," said Sinclair.

Instead, Sinclair intends to take the report to Canadians directly, through charities and non-profit groups, schools and educators, academics, and neighbourhood associations.

"We are going to engage the public below the government," he said.

The report, when it is finished, will be published in English, French and six aboriginal languages. Because so many indigenous Canadians can speak their language but not read, it is also being produced in audio form. People will be able to listen to the voices of survivors telling their stories.

"It's a huge undertaking," he said.

It's an undertaking Sinclair wasn't initially willing to take on. In 2007, shortly after the TRC was commissioned as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Sinclair was asked to be its chair. As Manitoba's first aboriginal judge and having overseen both the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and the Pediatric Cardiac Surgery Inquiry, he was an obvious choice.

But Sinclair said no. Seven years had passed since he delivered the pediatric inquiry report, which looked at the death of 12 children in the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre in 1994, and it still weighed heavily on him. He wasn't prepared yet to take on the emotional weight of residential schools survivors and a commission designed to shine light on the truths in the hope it may help survivors, and the country, to heal.

So it was that Ontario Appeals Court Judge Harry LaForme was named the chair, along with two commissioners, in May 2008. But the TRC wasn't even six months old when LaForme handed in his resignation. He could not work with the commissioners any longer, he said. There were power struggles and disagreements that could not be overcome.

The commissioners stepped down a few months later and the government was left scrambling to pull the TRC back from the brink.

The distress call was sent out to Sinclair and this time he answered it.

"I was eager by then," he says. "I felt the commission had let the survivors down. And I felt a real sense of responsibility to take on the challenge."

He drew on the experience of the two previous inquiries when he made his demands. He got to pick the two commissioners, he insisted they spend time together before they got working, and he ensured they all set up a support system.

"I had three rules," he said, for the commissioners to follow.

"First, take care of yourself. Then take care of your family, because that is who will support you when you need it. And then take care of the work."

Sinclair said he knew it would be a significant personal challenge and it was. A challenge that included personal reflection when a relative told him, a few years after he signed on as the chair, that his own father, Henry, had been abused in residential school. Sinclair, who was born and raised in Selkirk, mainly by his grandmother, realized how much of his father's life could be explained by running away from the past.

He lists among the biggest challenges, the sheer amount of information and the "magnitude of emotion" played out by the survivors who told their stories.

He had to take the federal government to court to get it to turn over all the relevant documents in its possession. He says the government has since been co-operating but with five million to six million boxes of documents scattered in warehouses across the country, it was not an easy task.

At one point, Sinclair estimates there were 200 people digging through archives, producing summaries of the contents and then digitizing the ones that were relevant. Although 85 people worked for the TRC full-time, hundreds more were hired on contract.

The commission was to have wrapped up a year ago, but in January 2014, Sinclair sought and received a one-year extension to the mandate.

Sinclair isn't sure what he will do next. He wants to return to the bench, but he is eligible to retire next year if he wants. He thinks he probably needs a bit of time off to recover, and expects he will write his own book. And he also expects the work of the TRC will never fully be finished.

For now he is holding his breath, looking forward not to the actual release, but to seeing what happens next.

As for reconciliation? Sinclair perhaps put it best on a post on his Facebook page.

"I was asked the other day when we will know that we have achieved reconciliation. My response is that it is not a state of being, but an acceptance of responsibility. I do know that we will be close to success when Aboriginal people can stop referring to their lives as a 'healing journey.' "

 

Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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