Justice Murray Sinclair, who headed up Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on aboriginal residential schools, is one of seven new senators appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“I believe that the higher calling of public service is a sacred honor, and it is with great humility that I accept this recommendation to be appointed,” Sinclair said in a statement following the March 18 appointment by Governor General David Johnston. “I approach this appointment with hope for the future, and remain committed to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, something I believe in my heart is possible.”
This group of appointments, based on the recommendation of an independent Advisory Board, fulfills Trudeau's pledge during the 2015 election campaign to make appointments on the basis of merit rather than political partisanship. Past practice of prime ministers has been to make many or most appointments on the basis of party loyalty. Sinclair’s appointment brings the number of aboriginal senators to six, out of 105 seats in the Senate, with 24 seats still unfilled.
“The Government is today taking further concrete steps to follow through on its commitment to reform the Senate, restore public trust, and bring an end to partisanship in the appointments process,” Trudeau said in a statement. “The Senate appointments I have announced today will help advance the important objective to transform the Senate into a less partisan and more independent institution that can perform its fundamental roles in the legislative process more effectively–including the representation of regional and minority interests–by removing the element of partisanship, and ensuring that the interests of Canadians are placed before political allegiances.”
Canada’s Senate is enshrined in the constitution, but it has been a matter of considerable recent controversy, especially because of charges of misuse of expense accounts by several senators. Some people have demanded that senators be elected, and others, including the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), have called for its abolition. Yet abolition is virtually impossible to accomplish because of the nature of the constitutional provisions related to the Senate.
Sinclair himself said he hesitated before accepting the invitation.
"My concerns were really about joining an institution that currently doesn't enjoy a good reputation in Canadian society," Murray Sinclair said, according to CBC News. "The fact that it has come under such intense fire over the last little while, over some of the appointments that have been made, certainly was a cause for concern."
A retired Manitoba judge, Sinclair has specialized in aboriginal legal issues. Before serving as head of the TRC, Sinclair was the first aboriginal judge in Manitoba and was one of two commissioners appointed to examine aboriginal justice issues in the province.
But he has had more than one arrow in his bow. In 2000 he produced a report on the deaths of 12 children in Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Center. In that report, he found that the initiation and operation of the hospital’s pediatric cardiac surgery program were too ambitious, poorly planned and carried out, and inappropriate for a catchment area of such size.
Indigenous leaders had nothing but praise for Trudeau’s pick.
“Justice Sinclair has a tremendous record of accomplishment, and his tireless dedication leading to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ensured that thousands of Indian Residential School survivors received the truth, justice, and reconciliation they so rightly deserved,” said Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation Derek Fox in a statement.
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde alluded to Sinclair’s dedication as reflected in his body of work. The justice also received accolades from those closer to home.
“Justice Sinclair has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to justice for First Nations and reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and all Canadians,” Bellegarde said in an AFN statement.
“First Nations in Manitoba are very pleased at the appointment of Justice Murray Sinclair to the Senate of Canada,” said AFN Manitoba Regional Chief Kevin Hart. “I commend him for his tremendous work and dedication, efforts that have made Canada a better place for all our peoples. Justice Sinclair has been a mentor to me and continues to be a role model for our youth and young people everywhere. We wish him well in this new, important role.”
The Anishinabek congratulated the justice and looked toward the future.
"Mizanay Gheezhik—Justice Murray Sinclair—is deserving of this appointment,” said Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee in a statement. “We are proud that he will be representing Indigenous Peoples’ interests in an under-represented government body. The work that he did with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an example of how he will seek the truth for First Nations people in Canada.”
Sinclair vowed to continue his reconciliation work in his new role as a senator.
“In the time following the release of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in the wake of the TRC's Calls to Action, it is my belief that we are entering a new era of relations with Indigenous people in Canada,” he said in his media release. “It is my wish to work toward repairing this relationship and doing what I can to make reconciliation a reality in Canada.”