senators’ statements — Tributes

The Honourable Murray Sinclair

February 16, 2021

Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)

Honourable senators, on January 31, Senator Sinclair retired from the Senate after nearly five years of service. Notably, he was the first Aboriginal judge appointed in Manitoba, and during his time as a senator, he represented our province and the Indigenous peoples of Canada with diligence and compassion. He has been one of the trailblazers of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada, and despite differences of opinion, I know that I can speak for all senators in saying that we have the utmost respect for all that Senator Sinclair has achieved.

I want to take the time to thank the senator for his time serving on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, founded in 2008. Its commitments led Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government to make the first formal apology for the dark history of residential schools in Canada. Appointed as the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by prime minister Stephen Harper in 2009, Senator Sinclair served on the commission with duty, leadership and dedication. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission successfully fulfilled its goal to document the impacts of residential schools in Canada by facilitating hundreds of hearings for the schools’ survivors and former staff. The final report they produced in 2015 not only fulfilled the commission’s purpose, but symbolized an historical moment for Canada to reflect on this troubled part in our history, in plain sight, while fostering hope to build a unified vision for a future pursuing reconciliation between all Canadians.

Senator Sinclair displayed a deep dedication to reconciliation as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and he continued to display this deep commitment throughout his time as a senator as well. I admire the ways in which Senator Sinclair has pursued the work that he believes to be important, with excellence and commitment.

I have appreciated Senator Sinclair’s perspective brought to the Red Chamber. Although we certainly had our policy disagreements, I fully agree with these words that Senator Sinclair spoke during his maiden speech in 2016:

Getting to the truth is hard, but achieving reconciliation will be harder. To achieve it, we in Canada must all work together.

Thank you, Senator Sinclair, for your service in the Senate of Canada, and thank you for your service to Canada.

Hon. Raymonde Gagné (Legislative Deputy to the Government Representative in the Senate)

Honourable senators, how do we, in three minutes, speak of a man who is one of Canada’s most accomplished political reformers? In his work as lawyer and judge, as the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and most recently as our colleague in the Senate, Senator Sinclair diligently uncovered Canada’s history of systemic state violence, which regrettably persists in different forms today. But his labour was also one of healing and a steadfast walking toward the bridge of reconciliation: toward a promised land I dearly hope we will see in the next generations.

Commenting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Senator Sinclair said that:

 . . . education was the primary tool of oppression of Aboriginal peoples, and miseducation of all Canadians, that we have concluded that education holds the key to reconciliation.

As a former educator, I could not agree more.

Being appointed to the Senate in 2016 alongside Senator Sinclair made my appointment doubly special. As a Manitoban, committed to doing my part in the reconciliation process, he had been central to how my family engaged it. My late husband, who worked as a lawyer on residential school cases, regularly turned to his writings for guidance. Today, one of my sons makes teaching of the subject a priority in his classroom. It goes without saying that the young lawyers he will mentor could not have asked for a better teacher.

Murray Sinclair has retired from the chamber. However, his presence will remain. The Senate has been enriched by his wisdom, leadership, contributions and pictures in the sky.

Murray’s Ojibway name translates as “The One Who Speaks of Pictures in the Sky.” As a student of several legal traditions — European and Indigenous — this perfectly represents the man, but here in the Senate, in his everyday relations, is a person who balances a soaring intellect and yet remains so down-to-earth. Senator Sinclair is a model in democratic deliberation: always respectful, always approachable, never letting the institutional structures of rivalry cast a shadow over our relations and the common project of service we are here to engage in at the Senate.

Thank you for everything, Murray. Your lasting legacy will live on long after your retirement. Meegwetch. Thank you.

Hon. Brian Francis

Honourable senators, I want to take a few minutes to pay tribute to our colleague and friend Senator Sinclair.

An articulate and outspoken champion of Indigenous peoples, Senator Sinclair has broken down barriers for generations to come. His leadership and contributions as a lawyer, judge, commissioner and, more recently, as a senator, have left an indelible mark on our collective memory.

It has been a pleasure to work with him and learn from him over the past few years, and I will miss his brilliant mind, wonderful sense of humour and big heart. However, his retirement is well deserved. Senator Sinclair has given so much of himself to others, and it has not always been easy. The impact of the often-heartbreaking testimony given by survivors of the residential school system at the TRC is felt deeply in his soul and body. The time has come for him to devote himself to his family and other passions.

Colleagues, I am mindful that this is not a goodbye but, rather, a “see you later,” because our paths remain intertwined.

Senator Sinclair has played a critical role in educating the public about the true history of Canada and its relationship with, and treatment of, Indigenous peoples. In doing so, he has helped shape our shared journey of reconciliation.

Last December, during the fifth anniversary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Senator Sinclair and the two other commissioners spoke about the overdue implementation of the Calls to Action. We were reminded then of our responsibility and obligation to move the path to reconciliation forward, not simply through words but, rather, concrete actions. This is a message we must all keep at the forefront of our thoughts and actions.

Senator Sinclair has also spoken about the role of education in reconciliation, once stating:

Residential schools were with us for 130 years, until 1996. Seven generations of children went to residential schools. It’s going to take generations to fix things.

There is indeed a long process of learning and unlearning that all Canadians and all governments must take part in. We, as parliamentarians, are not immune. We must challenge each other to be and do better so we can lead by example in our workplaces and communities. This would be, in my humble opinion, the best way to honour the tireless efforts of Senator Sinclair and others dedicated to advancing true and lasting reconciliation.

Senator Sinclair, on behalf of the entire Progressive Senate Group, I wish you the best in this new chapter. Thank you, wela’lin.

Hon. Mary Coyle

Honourable senators, I’m honoured to be speaking to you from Mi’kma’ki and to be singing the praises of our newly retired colleague, the Honourable — and adorable — Murray Sinclair.

Colleagues, spending the last three years in the company of one of Canada’s great leaders of our generation and one of my own personal heroes has been a gift I will always cherish.

The Honourable Murray Sinclair is a brilliant trailblazer, a down-to-earth and playful colleague, a person with deep respect for all creation and a highly masterful teacher.

As a trailblazer, our colleague Murray was out in front of the pack with many firsts along his professional trajectory. A lawyer, first Indigenous judge in Manitoba, co-commissioner of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the colleague we all know and love, Senator Sinclair.

As a playful colleague, Murray was good at disarming us all with a joke, witty quip or self-deprecating comment. Murray had us in the palm of his hand when he started a speech like this: “I introduce my comments with some trepidation, knowing that I stand between you and your dinner.”

Although clearly a lot of fun, Senator Sinclair could never be considered frivolous. He is a man of substance, wisdom and deep convictions. In speaking about the Jane Goodall bill, Murray shared his wisdom in saying:

In many Indigenous cultures, we use the phrase, “all my relations” to express the interdependency and interconnectedness of all life forms and our relationship of mutual reliance and shared destiny. When we treat animals well, we act with both self-respect and mutual respect.

Senator Sinclair is a born teacher, and I can’t think of a more noble role. He has brought thousands of people in his audiences around to understanding — to feeling — the fundamental truth about the tragedy and injustice of the residential school legacy by asking them to look in their cellphones for pictures of their children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, and then asking them to imagine those children being rounded up by force and taken away from family to schools where they would be taught that their language and culture are wrong and shameful. Senator Sinclair often said, “Education is what got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.”

Thank you, Senator Sinclair, for your insight, leadership, tenacity and your challenge to all of us. Murray, I wish you good health, an abundance of family joy and continued success on your life’s journey. Thank you, my teacher, Senator Sinclair.

Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond

Honourable senators, I would like to take a few moments to pay tribute to someone who is a former colleague in the Canadian judiciary and a former senator, but still a friend.

Senator Sinclair is a man who is imposing in every sense: physically, intellectually and morally. What a remarkable life he has led. He was the first Indigenous judge on the Provincial Court of Manitoba and one of the first judges appointed to a superior court by the federal government. Because of his great qualities, he was asked to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which produced a historic report whose teachings and recommendations will continue to guide us for a long time to come.

On a more personal note, I have to say that I would not have come to the Senate if not for the famous group of six appointed in March 2016. When I was appointed 18 months later, he was the first person I called to humbly ask him to be my mentor in the Senate, because I have to admit that I’m a fan of Murray Sinclair.

I had the great pleasure of working with him to promote some ideas on how to reform the operations of the Senate and define its role as an unelected chamber that, going forward, will be made up of non-partisan members.

Our Senate family is losing an important member, but the Senate’s loss is his immediate family’s gain, as his son Niigaan said so well, and I quote:

. . . as my father leaves his public life as a Senator — with his days as a commissioner, judge and lawyer a part of history — my family now get our time with him. While this will be a change for all of us (and he doesn’t even crack the top-five decision makers in our family) it’s well deserved — because we have been waiting a long time. . . .

Still, we are better off for all he did to get us here.

Miigwech, dad, and welcome home.

Thank you, Murray. Meegwetch.

Hon. Marilou McPhedran

Honourable senators, I will be brief, but every word spoken comes from the heart.

I was deeply honoured and inspired by the agreement of Senator Murray Sinclair to act as my sponsor on the first day that I joined the Senate, the same time as Senator Gagné and others who have spoken. I won’t repeat the very deserved praise that has come to Senator Sinclair, but I do want to quote briefly from the Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt:

What is it to live, to suffer, and, above all, to love in an emotionally inflexible world fashioned to produce men who eat “too much of the sunset?” We are haunted by that turning point, brought back to it again and again. But it doesn’t once and for all consign us to a ravaged life. There is more to be said; there is another mode of life to inhabit.

For me, this tribute, along with the long list of contributions that Senator Sinclair has made to the Senate, is the way in which he is helping us, has helped us and will continue to help us understand that there is, indeed, another world to inhabit; that the future of our country depends on our implementing, to the best of our ability as senators, the Calls to Action of the commission and also in heeding the many ways over the almost five years that we were blessed to have him with us to understand better what we need to do as elders for our country. Meegwetch.

Hon. Patricia Bovey

Honourable senators, our esteemed colleague, honoured Manitoban and Canadian, Senator Sinclair has been the conscience and an inspiration for many. Words of appreciation for all his myriad contributions to his province, his communities and nation in so many spheres are, as a whole, inadequate, but I’m going to try anyway. My words are true and heartfelt.

Senator Sinclair’s judicial career is celebratory as the first First Nations judge in our province of Manitoba, but during his time on the bench, I wonder if you know about his simultaneous stage acting career? He was the voice and presence on high at left stage in a Manitoba lawyers’ production about 20 years ago of Fiddler on the Roof in support of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. I was seated in row 2, and I can assure you that his presence and voice were felt. Indeed, his voice carried better than anyone else’s in the cast, and they were all accomplished speakers. Do we see a theatre career in the offing?

His work as a Truth and Reconciliation commissioner is well known and has been talked about by others. I want to convey my appreciation for the special ceremony at the University of Manitoba during my tenure as board chair the day Murray announced the transfer of material and records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the university’s new Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The emotion in the room was palpable. Murray, your work, passion and dedication, and that of the commission, must and will be a beacon for us for all years to come. We will get there, Murray.

Personally, I thank you for being a key part of my memorable day in this place as my sponsor and guide for my inauguration. Thank you, Murray.

Senator Sinclair, your insights and sensitivities in this chamber are much appreciated. I thank you on many levels. I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from you. Your challenge to Canada’s museum sector to lead the way in telling the truth of our history and to reconciliation is especially poignant. You were heard. Education in those places where families go is important. Families don’t go to schools together, but they do go to museums together.

I wish you and Katherine all the very best in the next chapter of your lives as you mentor young First Nations lawyers. They are lucky to have you for your shoulder and your advice. I look forward to your autobiography and to your continuing mentorship of me in the Senate and in my non-Senate life. I will miss your sense of humour and those Monday morning coffees in the Winnipeg airport before we departed for Ottawa.

Stay safe and good luck, my friend. You will be missed in this chamber, but I hope to see you soon. Thank you.

Hon. Yvonne Boyer

Honourable senators, I join you today to pay tribute to Senator Murray Sinclair. Senator Sinclair leaves the Senate after having spent five years representing the people of Manitoba, and indeed all Indigenous peoples, with honour and humility. Throughout his career, and especially his time in the Senate, he has always lived up to his Ojibway name, Mizanay Gheezhik, meaning “the one who speaks of pictures in the sky.”

Like all of you, I know that Senator Sinclair is far from finished giving to public life, but the time has come for him to focus on what matters most — his family. However, in his fashion, he has already committed to mentoring young lawyers in Indigenous law and to writing a memoir that will look at Indigenous identity and the importance of understanding the past to build a better future. That sure sounds like a restful retirement to me.

Senator Sinclair came to the Senate having gained an international reputation as one of Canada’s great legal minds. He served as co-chair of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was the first Indigenous judge appointed in Manitoba, and the second ever across Canada. His 25-year career in Manitoba’s justice system continues to inspire generations of young Indigenous lawyers throughout the world.

During his time in the Senate, he applied his vast experience and deep and inherent legal knowledge to each piece of legislation that he studied. He viewed his work through an Indigenous lens, and he used his hands-on experience as a judge to improve legislation. He worked tirelessly to protect Indigenous languages, reform the child welfare system and expose institutionalized systemic racism. He worked towards establishing a national day for truth and reconciliation, was the Senate sponsor for the first UNDRIP bill and recently introduced the Jane Goodall act.

Senator Sinclair retires from the Senate having made it a much better place, one that furthers the interests of Indigenous people, and he leaves behind an incredible legacy that will inspire all of us who follow in his footsteps. I am privileged to have worked with him, and I wish him the greatest of success in his future endeavours.

Senator Sinclair is a judge, a lawyer, a law professor, an elder, a mentor, a friend and most importantly, a father and a grandfather. Senator Murray Sinclair, thank you for being who you are, for your contributions to the Senate of Canada and beyond, and for an inspiration to us, our children and grandchildren, which you will always continue to be. Meegwetch, my friend.

Hon. Marty Klyne

Honourable senators, I rise in tribute to the great Senator Murray Sinclair. Our friend has now retired to mentor Indigenous lawyers, write a memoir and maybe a book of stories told by him to his granddaughter, and to avoid becoming Governor General.

Murray’s national legacy is well-known. One of Canada’s most respected Indigenous leaders, an admired jurist and a fearless champion for residential school survivors. He is a hero to most Canadians for bringing truth to our history and showing us the path to reconciliation and a better country for everyone. His work outside this Senate is greatly appreciated, well recognized and well documented for generations to come.

I will focus on Murray’s legacy in this chamber. Personally, I will cherish the memory of Murray escorting me into my swearing and the inspiration I gained from observing his approach to his work. I will not be alone in acknowledging Murray’s gift for validating the presence and importance of others. He draws you into the circle, he listens to everyone before he speaks. His words carry weight and often command a pause in the discussion. It sort of reminds me of the 1970s TV commercial, when the restaurant goes silent to hear a stock tip, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Murray achieved an impressive legislative record. He sponsored Bill C-51 requiring Charter compliance statements for all government bills; Bill C-75 to overhaul the Criminal Code, including banning peremptory jury judges following the death of Colten Boushie; as well as Bill C-91, to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages. He sponsored Bill C-262, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, laying the foundation for government Bill C-15. Murray called the introduction of that legislation “a historic milestone on the path to reconciliation.”

Murray also has a legacy of groundbreaking advocacy for the natural world, establishing laws to protect whales and dolphins from captivity. Last year, he authored the Jane Goodall act. I am deeply honoured to take on the sponsorship of that bill and ask for your help in speaking for the best interests of animals. In addition, Murray always spoke for children, working to repeal the law that authorizes the use of corporal punishment on kids, and helping restore Indigenous jurisdictions over child and family services.

My colleagues have referenced his Ojibway name, which means “the one who speaks of pictures in the sky.” It is fitting, then, that he gives us a vision for Senate reform, seeing this place as the council of elders we will become. Murray, as you enjoy your retirement with your family and the time to pursue passions, I bid you all the very best and say thank you, meegwetch.

Hon. Dan Christmas

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in tribute to our colleague, friend and elder, Senator Murray Sinclair. Describing and celebrating the talents and achievements of Senator Murray, as I call him in a spirit of deep affection, is no easy task. There is a near bottomless well of groundbreaking achievement, of historic firsts, of triumphs over adversity and repeated acts of compassion, one hardly knows where to begin when celebrating a person of such giftedness.

We all know of the milestones Senator Murray has achieved throughout his distinguished career — being named Manitoba’s first Indigenous judge, helping to lead the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, and certainly his historic work as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is important to highlight that all of these milestone endeavours occurred before he was named to this august chamber.

Since that time nearly five years ago, Senator Murray has become a beacon for the Indigenous community, not only in the halls of power on Parliament Hill but across Canada.

In one of his earliest speeches here in the chamber, where Senator Murray introduced the notion of the Senate as a council of elders, he reminded us that:

Elders are consulted by the community about the community’s or individuals’ most significant problems, and their advice is sought to help those who have the ultimate responsibility to govern the community and make final decisions about the lives of those within it.

Elders do not become or take up the cause of one side or the other in a dispute; rather, they work to help others overcome their differences. Elders help the community, including younger generations of leaders, to find the best path.

Senator Murray concluded:

At its best, the Senate of Canada is our country’s council of elders. With all of you, with your wisdom, experience and knowledge, I know the Senate will often be at its best. . . .

Senator Murray Sinclair has served this chamber ably as its de facto elder.

Honourable senators, I will conclude with what American labour and civil rights activist Walter Reuther once wrote:

There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to do it well.

This describes the contributions of Senator Murray to a tee.

To my honoured colleague, my dear friend, my Senate elder, I offer my profound thankfulness, gratitude and very best wishes as you embark on the next phase of your remarkable journey mentoring young Indigenous lawyers.

It has been a humbling and instructive experience serving with you, and I am committed to furthering the cause of championing Indigenous affairs and reconciliation with the same dedication you brought to these proceedings. In this regard, you have taught us so very much, and Canada is all the better for it.

Wela’lin. Thank you.

Hon. Raymonde Saint-Germain

Honourable senators, I speak today to pay tribute to the Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair.

I remember a dialogue that Senator Sinclair once initiated with me in French. While I was expecting a few words as a courtesy, our whole five minutes or so of conversation proceeded with him demonstrating his excellent understanding of French. He then told me that his grandmother had taught him French when she took care of him and his siblings after his mother died shortly after he was born.

To me, this is a testament to his modesty and to the fact that he is a perfectionist. He will only discuss a subject or speak a language in public if he has mastered it.

Honourable Senator Sinclair came to the Senate in the spring of 2016 and decided to sit as an independent. He perfectly personifies independence, and he demonstrated it throughout his tenure in this upper chamber with his impartiality, truth-speaking, and his aversion to groupthink and bias. It is not surprising that he was such an impressive senator. Indeed, his successes resulted from his experience and his expertise.

His personal qualities are also closely connected to his influence. The respect with which he treated everyone, his compassion, his communication skills and his very subtle sense of humour also contributed to his impact on us. Whenever Murray Sinclair spoke in this chamber, he was listened to with deference for his knowledge as well as for his unwavering dedication to the people.

I very much appreciated him, and still appreciate him, as a unifying figure in our country. He really came to the Senate of Canada to serve his fellow citizens and to build bridges between Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians, and he did so with humility and in a constructive, open-minded and reconciliatory way.

Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair, thank you for giving us and all our fellow citizens the privilege of still hearing your sound and strong voice of a bridge builder and conciliator. Thank you for helping us move forward to a fairer and more inclusive country.

From myself and the members of the Independent Senators Group, I thank you for continuing to share your wisdom with us. We wish you great success, health and happiness. Chi-miigwech.

Hon. Kim Pate

Honourable senators, I join the chorus of tributes to Senator Sinclair. We are grateful for all he is and all he has contributed to this place, this country and the world.

Senator Sinclair is a loving husband, father, grandfather, mentor, colleague and friend. From being invited to the ceremony in which he was presented with the Key to the City of Ottawa — he wanted me to know that it also unlocks the local jail — to his guest lectures in law classes, quiet moments with various members of my family, and attending the swearing in of my partner Pam as a federally appointed justice of this province, I have been honoured and humbled to count myself among so many he has supported, mentored and inspired.

Throughout his life, Senator Sinclair has achieved the highest honours, set tracks and blazed trails, first as a lawyer specializing in Indigenous legal issues going into prisons, and then to his appointment as Manitoba’s first — and Canada’s second — Indigenous judge, his leadership of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, the TRC, his work here in the Senate of Canada, and mischief-making extraordinaire.

As Senator Sinclair spends time with his beautiful wife Katherine, his children and grandchildren and mentors upcoming generations of creative, courageous and brilliant Indigenous lawyers, I have no doubt that together their work and leadership will immeasurably enrich the legal profession, the pursuit of justice, fairness and equality for all on Turtle Island and around the globe. Given his taste in footwear, I have no doubt they will also keep Canada’s Fluevog distribution liquid.

We are grateful, Senator Sinclair, that you will continue to support and guide our work with your brilliant intellect and your wonderful wit, but most particularly with your unparalleled courage in challenging Canada and this chamber to confront its legacy of racism and colonialism and to move forward as we strive to fully implement the Calls to Action of the TRC and fully embrace what you envisioned in terms of both truth and reconciliation. Thank you for your faith and insistence that together we and all of Canada can rise to this challenge.

Senator Sinclair, it is our incredible privilege and our collective responsibility to have served alongside you in this place as we endeavour to walk with you and honour your life’s work and your unwavering commitment to securing a better future for Indigenous peoples and, ultimately, for all of us.

Chi-miigwech, Senator, Justice and Dr. Sinclair.