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The Honourable Murray Sinclair shares how education and leadership are key to reconciliation

Nov 30, 2021

In 2017, when asked why Indigenous People don’t “just get over” the residential school experience, The Honourable Murray Sinclair said Canadians should never forget because it’s “part of who we are as a nation.” In a powerful address, Sinclair said, “this nation must never forget what it once did to its most vulnerable people.”

During a conversation with journalist Anna Maria Tremonti for Ivey’s LeaderShift webinar, Sinclair, a former judge and senator who is best known for chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, discussed why that sentiment is more important than ever given recent discoveries of more residential school victims’ remains. Prior to the event, Sinclair had been chairing negotiations on federal Indigenous compensation.

“If we move forward without remembering, then we are not the people we should be. Even newcomers must feel the weight of this process of reconciliation because, even if you weren’t here, you still have a responsibility to the future of this country and therefore you need to understand this,” he said. “Reconciliation is about establishing a relationship of mutual respect. We respect each other … that’s what this country should be about.”

Although open to all, the event from Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership was incorporated into this year’s Learning Through Action course for HBA1 students to complement other curriculum on Indigenous cultures and knowledges. The students are also taking an educational program called The Path™, which has been endorsed by Sinclair.

The business link to reconciliation

The conversation focused on the importance of Canada moving toward reconciliation and racial equality and how business leaders and educators can contribute.

Sinclair highlighted the social connection to reconciliation as well as the economic benefits of financially supporting Indigenous economies and incorporating Indigenous beliefs and practices into policies and plans for Canada’s future growth.

“There is not one situation where money that has been provided to an Indigenous community has not compounded itself in benefitting local economies as well,” he said. “There is an economic spin-off benefit that we need to recognize and, if we can all collectively ensure that Indigenous People are part of the economic growth of this country, then we will see that the economics of this country will also grow.”

He cited the importance of long-term planning and thinking, with greater consideration of how to coexist with nature and protect the environment. It’s part of the Indigenous worldview that includes an understanding of how decisions impact future generations. Sinclair called it a matter of individuals and institutions “finding balance” between making money and respecting the environment, their communities, and – most importantly – people. He pointed out how one company (Seattle-based Gravity Payments) prospered after offering a minimum salary of $70,000 to all employees.

“The first thing the corporate world needs to learn is how to treat people well. The way you treat your people is probably the biggest asset that you have and the biggest tool you can use,” he said. “You also need to recognize that there are cultural groups within your corporate community that you need to pay attention to.”

Developing leaders who give back to society

Sinclair also stressed the need for inclusive education programs that move beyond a focus on the business world to developing philosophers, artists, and writers who can influence societies.

“We can’t lose sight of the other aspect of education that’s important, which is developing those changemakers who are going to influence who we are as people and as a nation. Even those that we are educating to be utilitarian participants in the economy need to receive a balanced education about their role in society,” he said. “It’s very much about ensuring that the human beings who you are educating are given the opportunity to be the best human beings they can be.”

Sinclair shared how Indigenous Elders and family members encouraged him to be the best he can be, forging his leader character and commitment. He told how his grandmother wanted him to become a priest so he could take care of people. But when he went to university instead, she made him promise to do the best he can with his education. And when he quit law shortly after becoming a lawyer due to frustration with the system, an Indigenous Elder’s guidance enabled him to return to the profession and find ways to change the system. Sinclair went on to become the first Indigenous judge in Manitoba, presiding over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its 94 calls to action in 2015.

“As I flipped my way of thinking, I began to see that there were certain things that the system was doing that were wrong and that needed to change. I thought, maybe if I start to draw attention to those things, they will become things that can be changed,” he said.

The importance of leadership commitment

And while acknowledging that he’s faced criticism, Sinclair said leaders must focus on what is important for their people, even if it’s not the popular view.

“If you can learn to accept that [criticism] and continue to do what you have to do despite the fact that there are people telling you they don’t like what you’re doing, you have the capacity to lead,” he said.

That sense of responsibility to do what he could drives his continued efforts to advance reconciliation and support residential school survivors despite retiring from the Senate in January 2021.

“We must never give up the responsibility of doing what we can, when we can. The teaching that I have learned is, at the end of my life, I will be turned around on my spirit journey. They will turn me around and they will make me look back on the trail that I created in this world,” he said. “They will ask me to account for everything I did, but also everything that I didn’t do that I could have done. I have to be prepared to speak to that.”

Watch the full presentation above.