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Reconciliation through education

The Hon. Justice Murray Sinclair was appointed chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2009. Over the past five years, the commissioners have spoken with survivors, families, communities and other people affected by Indian Residential Schools.

Justice Sinclair visited Queen’s on March 27 to give the inaugural lecture in the Tom Courchene Distinguished Speakers Series. Before the talk, he sat down with Senior Communications Officer Mark Kerr to discuss his views on the legacy of Indian Residential Schools and the reconciliation process.

[Murray Sinclair
The Hon. Justice Murray Sinclair believes post-secondary institutions have an obligation to encourage academic discourse and research about Indigenous issues. 

Mark Kerr: How has your understanding of the Indian Residential School legacy changed and evolved after visiting hundreds of communities and listening to thousands of people tell their stories?

Justice Murray Sinclair: When I started this work, I knew the magnitude of the problem we were going to be dealing with. The experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has shown me the significance and the impact of not just the residential schools but the role of education more generally on Indigenous people.

The number of Indigenous people who went through residential schools is not much more than 30 per cent of the total Indigenous population in Canada. Yet most Aboriginal people in Canada suffer from feelings of inferiority, feelings of anger and frustration at the way the education system that they experienced has portrayed them. We have to talk about the ways public schools are implicated in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people as well.

The experience of Aboriginal people in schools involves so much physical and sexual abuse. And that abuse has had significant impact on their lives when you consider it occurred to them at a vulnerable time when they were children and that it continued for such a long time. Even if they weren’t physically abused, they lived in constant fear that they might be abused.

MK: Why is it important that Canadians learn about the history of residential schools?

MS: Because this is their history too. At the same time Aboriginal people were being told in residential schools and public schools that they were inferior, they were heathens, they were savages and their history was irrelevant, that same message was being given to non-Aboriginal people. And so non-Aboriginal people have been raised in an educational environment both in the schools and public to believe in the superiority of European societies, peoples and cultures and that Aboriginal people are inherently inferior because of that.

That story, therefore, implicates all Canadians and we need to ensure that the story of what it means to be Canadian and what Canada is needs to be told in a way that includes everybody.

[The Hon. Justice Murray Sinclair]
The Hon. Justice Murray Sinclair says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will work to continue the conversation around reconciliation after the final report is released this June. 

MK: What can universities do to promote and foster reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians?

MS: The key to reconciliation – repairing the damage that has been done to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people – is education. All educational institutions including post-secondary institutions have an obligation in the course of their teaching about this country and topics such as science and the environment to try and include the Aboriginal understanding of those issues as well to show the validity of Aboriginal thinking. Aboriginal people are so much a part of this country and they are so influential in this country.

Post-secondary institutions also have an obligation to engage in dialogue and academic discussions and to foster research into these issues. The full story has not yet been told and the experience has not yet been portrayed in a way that people believe is valid.

Quick Link
Learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada by visiting its website.

MK: You’ve said that truth is hard but residential school reconciliation is harder. What does reconciliation look like to you and how do we achieve that as Canadians?

MS: Reconciliation is about establishing a respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Before we can have mutual respect, we have to understand the importance of ensuring that Aboriginal people in future generations have self-respect. That’s a difficult thing to do because it involves undoing a lot of things that are founded on the racism of the past.

One thing we have pointed out to people is that this history of oppression, of taking away from Aboriginal people their faith in themselves, their belief in their systems and culture, their ability to speak their language, their understanding of their own history, has resulted in a population of young Indigenous people who are not only angry and frustrated at having those things denied them, they’re also feeling at a loss because they want those things put back into their lives.

They want to know what it means to be Anishnaabe, they want to know what it means to be a Cree, to be a Dene, to be a Dakota. They want to know what those teachings are so that they will be able to stand up proudly and proclaim that to their children and grandchildren.

This interview has been edited and condensed.