A number of his key statements were not true.
The recent airborne ‘confession’ by Pope Francis of a Canadian genocide at Indian Residential Schools comes, in no small measure, as a direct result of statements made by Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The statements are not true, which calls into serious question the validity of the Holy Father’s genocide declaration.
By James C. McCrae
MURRAY SINCLAIR is a former Senator, Judge, government advisor, and member of the Order of Canada, holding the honour’s highest rank of Companion. He’s also been awarded the Meritorious Service Cross in recognition of his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Both honours acknowledge Sinclair’s service to Canada, Canadians, and especially Indigenous Canadians. His achievements are quite widely known.
He’s also a husband, father, and grandfather. He could be fairly described as an ordinary person who has achieved extraordinary things.
Sinclair’s TRC Report is treated as gospel by many people across Canada. Its recommendations form the basis of important government policy changes, changes in people’s view of themselves and their country, changes in what we are teaching our children. Murray Sinclair is indeed the éminence grise respecting all things Indigenous.
Men and women of Sinclair’s stature are regarded as eminently credible. The things they say are taken seriously and are often reacted to and acted upon. When some of the things they say cut deeply into the consciousness of caring Canadians, it hurts. It hurts most deeply those Indigenous Canadians who wonder what happened to their children of the past. “Was our uncle one of those kids who were forced to attend residential school?” “Were our grandparents and great-grandparents subjected to the abuse that we think has so badly affected our family ever since?”
But Sinclair is human, an ordinary person. Even people like Murray Sinclair make mistakes. Again, Sinclair is deemed a credible person. Credible people usually admit their mistakes.
Words matter. They matter even more when they are spoken by people like Murray Sinclair.
In view of the credibility that is attributed to him, some reflections are in order regarding just two of Sinclair’s misstatements of fact. They have been chosen because of their significance and importance to a proper understanding of the issue of Indian Residential Schools. Having been widely believed, they have led and continue to lead to profound pain, mistrust, and bitterness on the part of Indigenous families and communities on the one hand, and enormous amounts of guilt and self-flagellation on the part of non-Indigenous Canadians on the other.
The first is this:
“… nearly every Indigenous child in Canada was sent to a residential school.”
On Apr. 27, 2010, speaking as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and for the people of Canada, Sinclair told the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: “For roughly seven generations nearly every Indigenous child in Canada was sent to a residential school. They were taken from their families, tribes and communities, and forced to live in those institutions of assimilation.”
The statement is false. In fact, less than one-third of school-aged Indigenous children attended residential schools. The remaining two-thirds or more attended Indian day schools or no schools at all. This fact is documented in census records, quarterly Indian Affairs Department reports, Indian Agent reports, school records, and elsewhere. The statement that “nearly every Indigenous child” attended the schools is one of the key myths that underpins residential schools discussions today. This myth, combined with the “suspected graves” allegation from Kamloops on May 27, 2021, may also be a reason for all the outrage, violence, and destruction that occurred last summer. Dozens of Christian churches and public properties were destroyed or vandalized.
The other part of Sinclair’s statement at the UN leads the world to believe that nearly every Indigenous child in Canada was “taken” from his or her parents and “forced” to live at school. That statement too is patently false. Children “forced” to attend were usually either orphans or children who in later years would have been apprehended by child protection agencies, agencies that did not exist in the early days. While in some circumstances, parents were pressured by Indian agents and clergy to send their children to the schools, in most cases the children’s parents signed applications for admission to the schools. Some parents pleaded with the authorities to allow their children to be admitted to school. Some parents refused to send their children to the schools. Parents in Cross Lake, Man. petitioned the government — twice — to rebuild their residential school which was destroyed by a fire set by student delinquents in 1930, killing twelve children and a nun. To repeat: the parents petitioned twice to have the school rebuilt.
A fairly basic search of Library and Archives Canada documents should have made these things plain to Sinclair and the TRC. Such evidence is not difficult to find. These documents make it clear that 150,000 children were not “forced” to attend the schools, as has been published and broadcast almost daily in Canadian media for years.
Another careless and untrue statement made by Sinclair was this:
“… could be in the 15-25,000 range, and maybe even more.”
This statement was made in June of 2021 — a few days after the news from Kamloops — when Sinclair told CBC’s The Current program that the number of children who died as a result of their school experience “could be in the 15-25,000 range, and maybe even more.” It helped healing not at all when Sinclair added, “I suspect, quite frankly, that every school had a burial site.”
The TRC’s successor, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba, has acknowledged that its Memorial Register of children who “died at or went missing from” Indian Residential Schools is misleading. The Centre’s senior archivist wrote of the Register on Mar. 10, 2022:
In reality the Register includes not only the names of children who died at school but also the names of children who died elsewhere: in hospitals, house fires, drownings, auto accidents, plane and railroad crashes. In one case, a child died the victim of a falling tree at home on his reserve far away from the Kamloops school. Why is such a name included in the Memorial Register of those who died at school?
The Register also includes the name of Helen Betty Osborne, who the world knows was not a student at Guy Hill Indian Residential School when she was murdered near The Pas, Man. in November 1971. Why is her name included?
Murray Sinclair knows that Betty Osborne’s name does not belong on that Register. Manitoba’s 1991 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI), co-chaired by Sinclair, conducted a thorough investigation of Betty’s tragic death and the circumstances surrounding it.
The NCTR refuses to comment further or to correct its fraudulent Register. And Murray Sinclair has done nothing to urge the centre to do anything to correct its deliberate misrepresentations respecting the deaths of unfortunate children.
In his interview on The Current, Sinclair spoke of tears and “emotionally distraught” former residential school students. He said, “I just sit and listen. There’s not much else we can do, just sit and listen while they cry. And there’s many tears.”
In fact, there is much more that Murray Sinclair can do. Indeed, it provides no succour at all to Indigenous families and communities when a person of the stature of Sinclair leads the chorus of disinformation, exaggeration, and hyperbole.
Sinclair’s two misstatements have done enormous harm to Indigenous families and to the collective conscience of Canadians. That harm will become more manifest as more Canadians realize that they have been deceived.
It is time that he publicly corrected the record so that Canadians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, can move forward on the path to reconciliation. And he should urge the NCTR to open up its research to the media and the general public so that the many errors in its Register — such as the inclusion of the death of Helen Betty Osborne — can be corrected.
James C. McCrae is a former Attorney General of Manitoba and retired Citizenship Judge of the Canadian Citizenship Commission.