For the Record

Building a new relationship

Murray Sinclair standing in the woods with his hand leaning against a tree.

Photography by Skye Spence

This July, The Honourable Murray Sinclair became the 15th chancellor of Queen’s University. Here he tells us, in his own words, why he came to Queen’s, what his priorities will be, and how we can all play a role in Truth and Reconciliation.

Tell us a little bit about why you wanted to come to Queen’s and what you are most looking forward to in the months ahead.  I didn’t really want to take on another task after retiring from the Senate, but I did. I had a number of conversations with (Principal Patrick Deane) about things such as the name of the Law School building and Queen’s long history. This would be an opportunity to perhaps influence the direction of the university. Queen’s is a leader among all the universities in Canada, so I thought this was an opportunity to set a course across the country with other universities and address the issues around inclusion, diversity, and reconciliation appropriately.

What are some of your priorities as you begin your new role as our Chancellor? My first priority is to learn about the university’s internal functioning and administration and finding a comfortable fit. I intend to continue to participate as fully as possible with university committees as previous chancellors have participated. I’ve had a couple of discussions with Chancellor Leech and the Chair of the Board (Mary Wilson Trider, Com’82) and they have been very helpful. 

My priorities as I am learning about the university are to look at the issues around the history of the university and its connection to Sir John A. Macdonald. Participating in a discussion around the new name of the Law building is going to be important.

Advancing the university in respect to Indigenous scholarship across the country is an important role. I want to ensure that the university is going to be in a stronger position and be one of the leaders in the dialogue around reconciliation at the post-secondary level.

You have previously said that it will take decades to undo Canada’s history of abuse toward Indigenous Peoples and that “we have to turn that 150 years of negativity into generations of positivity.” How can the average person contribute to that positivity? There are a number of preliminary steps every person has to take. One is to recognize their obligation to participate and do what they can. As my colleague (Truth and Reconciliation) Commissioner Marie Wilson is fond of saying, “Reconciliation is not a spectator sport.” Canadians can’t clap from the sidelines. They have to be part of the parade.

Secondly, individuals have an obligation to inform themselves of the history of residential schools, oppression, and systemic racism in our public schools. People need to lead the way to ensure that their children and their grandchildren are receiving a more balanced education about the history of this country.

The third thing is, find something you are capable of doing in terms of workload and interest level and include the dialogue of reconciliation in it.

So people can do a lot of things. I say, if nothing else, talk to your kids about reconciliation to ensure your children are aware.

You have also been quoted saying that “education has gotten us into this mess, and education will get us out.” Can you tell us more about the role post-secondary institutions can play in the future of truth and reconciliation? The role of post-secondary institutions is part and parcel of an overall change in the way we educate children publicly, whether it is children in Grade 1 to all the way to high school and post-secondary students. We want children at the early years to get a more balanced view of this country. We want them to know that the history of this country begins before 1492 (when Christopher Columbus arrived in North America). They’ll know Indigenous Peoples had been here for thousands of years before that, what it meant to be a Cree, what it meant to be Ojibway, the difference between all the tribes. As they are getting older, we want them to be educated to be anti-racist, not just non-racist, so they will confront racism when they see it.

 There is a quote from you that hangs in the Queen’s Law atrium: “The road we travel is equal in importance to the destination we seek. There are no shortcuts. When it comes to truth and reconciliation we are forced to go the distance.” We are travelling that road right now – as individuals in the Queen’s community. How can we best measure our progress on that road? I want to discourage people from focusing on things like saying, “We’ve done 35 out of the 94 (Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s) calls to action, therefore we are almost finished.” The reality is we are building a new relationship into what it should have been before Confederation. So, we need to understand what we did wrong all those years before. For the longest people from focusing on things like saying, “We’ve done 35 out of the 94 (Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s) calls to action, therefore we are almost finished.” The reality is we are building a new relationship into what it should have been before Confederation. So, we need to understand what we did wrong all those years before. For the longest time, the Indigenous Peoples have been gas-lighted by the government of Canada into believing they are inferior and that the white man came here and saved them. Indigenous People were denied the education of their creation story, their history, their traditions, and laws. Now what we need to do as a society is recognize the wrong of all of that and put Indigenous Peoples back in a position where they have a right to get back their self-respect and knowledge. Non-Indigenous People have to recognize the myth of their own superiority that they have been led to believe. The government and society need to accept that they need to change.

Many members of the Queen’s community will be familiar with your legal work, and, of course, your ground-breaking role leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tell us something about you that people don’t know, or that you’d like them to know. I love riding motorcycles. I started when I was a teenager. I love riding in the open air and the sense of being on a machine while also communing with nature. It gives you a sense of solitary and being with your own thoughts. I am 70 years old, so picking up a heavy motorcycle when it falls over (is difficult), so I decided to buy a three wheeler. I am riding a Can-Am Spyder now.

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