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Murray Sinclair’s Fabrications

James McCrae

Originally published in the Dorchester Review of August 3, 2022

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, former Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The statements he made are not true, which calls into serious question the validity of the Holy Father’s genocide declaration.

Murray Sinclair is now a 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.

Murray Sinclair speaks at an event organized by Indpsire, a respected national organization that provides educational support to Indigenous youth.

Sinclair is a former political assistant, a lawyer, a judge, a commissioner of a number of public inquiries, and a Senator. 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.

The 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. As the Chair of the Commission, Murray Sinclair is indeed the éminence grise respecting all things Indigenous.

Men and women of Sinclair’s stature are normally regarded as eminently credible. The things they say are taken seriously and are often reacted to and acted upon. But 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 a residential school?”, they ask. “Were our grandparents and great-grandparents subjected to 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, and 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 he enjoys, some reflections are in order regarding at least 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 Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (IRS). Having been widely believed, they have led to — and continue to lead to — profound pain, mistrust and bitterness on the part of Indigenous families and communities on the one hand, and on the other, enormous amounts of guilt and self-flagellation on the part of non-Indigenous Canadians.

The first misstatement 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 in Canada ever attended a residential school. 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 discussions of the IRS 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 in the summer of 2022. 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 an IRS institution. That statement too is patently false. Any 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. Some parents pleaded with the authorities to allow their children to be admitted to a 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 had been 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, his fellow Commissioners, and the research staff of 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.

A second careless and untrue statement made by Sinclair is 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 said on the CBC program The Current that the number of children who died as a result of their residential 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 highly-publicized 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:

“Many names are added at the request of family members of children they lost who attended residential school. It may be the wish of these families to memorialize their lost children among the names of their schoolmates.”

In reality the Register includes not only the names of children who died at school but also the names of IRS students who died elsewhere: in hospitals, house fires, drownings, auto accidents, and plane and railroad crashes. As just one example, one child died the victim of a falling tree at home on his reserve, far away from the Kamloops school. Why is his name included in the Memorial Register of those who died as a result of their residential school experience?

Another example. 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.

Murray Sinclair speaks to a large gathering at Dalhousie University in 2018.

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.  Indigenous families and communities are provided no succour or comfort when a person of Sinclair’s stature leads the chorus of disinformation, exaggeration and hyperbole that has done enormous harm to Indigenous families and to the collective conscience of Canadians. The harm caused by such misstatements will become increasingly manifest as more and more Canadians realize that they have been deceived.

It is time that Murray Sinclair publicly corrected the record so that Canadians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, can move forward on the path to reconciliation.  He should retract his statement to the UN about “nearly every child” being forced to attend, 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 at last be corrected.

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James C. McCrae is a former Attorney General of Manitoba and citizenship judge of the Canadian Citizenship Commission.

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