Legal industry needs to understand truth of Canada’s indigenous history if we truly want to move forward

Senator Murray Sinclair. | Photo by Archkris, Wikimedia Commons

graduated from law school in 1979, and I entered a profession that knew very little about the history, culture or experiences of Indigenous people in Canada.

I had practised for a very short time when I considered leaving the legal profession. I was disillusioned by how little my colleagues seemed to care about Indigenous history, angry that so many of my Indigenous brothers and sisters were denied access to true justice and offended by a legal system that systematically discriminated against my community.

At that time, Section 141 of the Indian Act prevented Indigenous people from hiring lawyers to pursue their land claims, effectively barring us from pursuing our rights. Any lawyer who defied this prohibition by giving legal counsel to an Indigenous person could be disbarred or jailed.

In this way, the rule of law – the very thing that I went to law school to uphold – was used to stack the system against Indigenous people.

Despite my profound reservations, I did not walk away from the law. Instead, I chose to use it to fight itself. I spent my legal career working to create justice for Indigenous people. I practised law in Winnipeg for nine years, went on to serve for 25 years as a judge in Manitoba and was appointed to the Senate in 2016.

The most important work I have done was serving as chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). By forcibly removing Indigenous children from their parents and communities for the primary purpose of eliminating Aboriginal cultures and racial identity, we concluded that the Government of Canada had committed cultural genocide.

Since that time, I have dedicated myself to educating Canadians about the truth of the residential school system and the importance of reconciliation. Over the past four years, I have travelled across the country to ensure that Canadians know their history. This is because I believe that while education is what got us into this mess, education is also the tool that will get us out.

It is particularly important for the legal community to begin its journey towards reconciliation. This is why the TRC has called upon the Federation of Law Societies to ensure that lawyers receive cultural competency training, and upon law schools to require all students to take a course in Indigenous peoples and the law.

In my travels across the country, I often ask lawyers whether they have read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report — or even the summary of the report.

Most have not.

And yet, lawmakers, judges and lawyers are the gatekeepers to the justice system. Until they understand the truth of our history and their role in making change, our country will not be able to move forward.

Despite these challenges, some progress is being made.

Recently, I spoke to lawyers and members of the business community at the national law firm, McCarthy Tétrault. I was impressed by the firm’s willingness to take proactive steps to become more informed about reconciliation.

One of those steps was to hire a chief inclusion officer, a position solely dedicated to creating an inclusive workplace. Under her leadership, the firm has developed a program to advance reconciliation. This includes increasing its recruitment of Indigenous lawyers and employees, ensuring that Indigenous employees and clients feel culturally supported, investing in Indigenous communities, volunteering with Indigenous organizations, providing pro bono legal services to Indigenous individuals and supporting Indigenous artists to help preserve Indigenous culture.

Of course, as the firm’s chief executive himself acknowledged, this is just a start. It is these kinds of concrete efforts that will begin the healing process and build the trust we need to move forward together.

When I speak to people about reconciliation, I will often ask members of the audience to pull out their cellphones and find a photo of a child they know and love. I ask them to share the photo with their neighbour, along with a story about this little person.

I then ask the owner of the photo to delete it.

Of course, they cannot do it. Nor do I actually want them to.

And yet, this is the first step towards reconciliation – to appreciate the gravity of what happened to our children. To begin to understand how the law ripped our families apart and left an entire population, and the generations that followed, traumatized.

I plan to continue to travel the country, sharing this message and inviting this understanding, for as long as I am able.

Senator Murray Sinclair served as chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He represents Manitoba.