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January 10, 2018

The Human Rights of Canada's Indigenous People

Scott Stockdale

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The documented fact that Canada's Indigenous population has one of the highest suicide rates in the world is a societal and cultural problem, not a mental health issue, according to Senator Murray Sinclair, former Chair of Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“This is about young people feeling disconnected from Canadian society and their own families,” Judge Sinclair said. “It's not just about how they feel, but how their community feels.”

When Mr. Sinclair was appointed associate Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of Manitoba in March 1988 he became the first Aboriginal judge in Manitoba and only the second Aboriginal judge in Canada.

Speaking recently in Toronto at the Diversity and Inclusion 2017: The Power of Inclusion Conference, sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada, Senator Sinclair said he appreciated the opportunity to participate in the diversity and inclusion conference because “it stands us up on our feet in a good way.”

Speaking in a measured tone - with not a hint of anger – Senator Sinclair said children have been taught in the Canadian school system that Indigenous culture is inferior, resulting in Indigenous and non-Indigenous children believing in the myth of European superiority. Senator Sinclair said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that this myth of superiority leads to antagonism in the workplace, which must be dealt with on an ongoing basis.

“We must have a conversation ongoing constantly. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that (Indigenous) people are often faced with a remark (in the workplace). People need to understand what it's like dealing with Indigenous people.”

In order to understand the perspective of Indigenous people in Canada, Canadians need to know the true history of Canada, Judge Sinclair said.

He cited the study by Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist Minister, who was a leading figure in 19th century Canadian education and politics.

Mr. Ryerson was instrumental in the establishment of a free and compulsory public education system in Ontario. While Egerton Ryerson supported education, he also believed in different systems of education for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children, Senator Sinclair said.

“In the 1850's Ryerson studied how to establish schools for the colonies.  He recommended public schools to educate white children because he believed they were intellectually and culturally superior to Indians. He believed that because Indians were inferior they needed to be trained, not educated, to do manual labour and menial tasks.”

These beliefs influenced the establishment of the Indian Residential School system that has had a devastating impact on First Nations, Métis and Inuit people across Canada, Mr. Sinclair said.

“Indigenous children were removed from their families on the reserves and sent to residential schools, no to be educated, but to be indoctrinated into Christian society. The government made these schools compulsory to attend. If parents tried to get their children back, they could be arrested for being off the reserves without a pass. The Ministry of Indian Affairs had to give permission for them to be off the reserve.”

He added that any lawyer caught giving advice to Indians would lose his license and three or more Indians meeting could be prosecuted for conspiring against the government.

During the 15 years he spent studying the relationship between Aboriginals and the Canadian Justice System – which incarcerates Indigenous people at a disproportionate rate -  Senator Sinclair said every report said the justice system was not only failing Aboriginal people, but everyone.

During judges' conferences about Indigenous peoples’ experiences with the Canadian justice system, Senator Sinclair gave the other judges Indigenous peoples' perspective.

“We talked about the need for greater awareness of the concerns of Indigenous people in the justice system. Court officials thought Indigenous people needed to be taught about the justice system: they needed to comply. That's the way the justice system went about its work.”

Senator Sinclair said that for the first time discrimination was applied to the justice system.

“Everybody believed that everyone was equal before the law. There was no need for cultural competence in the courtroom. When I asked (a group of 20 plus judges) if the courtroom had a culture, no one raised their hand. They all thought the courts were culturally neutral.”

He cited the fact that a defendant is told to put his hand on the bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as an example of cultural bias.

“I used to see Sikh taxi drivers (putting their hands on the bible) and this had nothing to do with what they believe. “

He noted that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that all elements of society have a role to play in creating a culturally diverse and inclusive society for everyone. 

“We (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission) had 94 calls to action. We determined that all elements of society have a role to play in coming to terms with the legacy of residential schools.”

He said it has taken 150 years to create this mess so it's going to take a long time to fix it.

“We have an obligation to reform ourselves: the way we do our work; the way we teach; the way we run our corporations. We have to actively recruit Indigenous people and provide a culturally safe and comfortable environment for them and everyone else.”

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