Sen. Murray Sinclair's Symons Medal lecture to explore Confederation's impact on Indigenous communities

Sen. Murray Sinclair, who is the former chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is this year’s recipient of the Symons Medal to be presented on Friday.

Sinclair, who has served in Canada’s justice system for the past 25 years, will also be delivering the Symons Medal lecture, which he’s called Confederation: We Could Have Done Better.

He said he’s hoping to use the award as an opportunity to explore the lasting repercussions of the formation of Canada on Indigenous Peoples. 

“It’s one of those subject areas, it just easily gets skipped over, is the fact that despite the number of years that were spent on Confederation dialogue from 1861 till it occurred in 1867, there was never any consultation with Indigenous people,” he said. 

He said the lack of consultation with Indigenous people in the years leading up to Confederation has had a continued impact on Indigenous communities, their autonomy, and their rights in Canada. 

A deeper look at Confederation 

“They weren’t made part of the Constitution of Canada and therefore the lack of legal sophistication and legal advice that Indigenous people were burdened by at the time came to be seen as a limitation upon their rights,” he said. 

For Sinclair, taking a closer look at Confederation is crucial to achieving reconciliation. 

Education is the key to reconciliation.— Murray Sinclair

He likens it to entering into a marriage or relationship with someone under specific terms and then having your partner behave according to an entirely different set of terms that were not originally agreed upon. 

“At a certain point in time you either have to leave the relationship or you have to convince the authorities that are in existence to start listening to you. And it has taken this long for Indigenous people to convince the authorities in Canada, that is the courts, to begin to listen,” Sinclair said. 

‘A mixed bag of success’

In 2015, Sinclair delivered the Truth and Reconciliation Report, which detailed 94 calls to action. So far, he said, the response has been a “mixed bag of success.”

He said the area of education has seen some of the biggest improvements since the report was first delivered.

“Education is the key to reconciliation because if we educate our children about each other, or Indigenous children and non-Indigenous children about each other properly from the beginning and teach them to be more respectful toward each other, toward each other’s rights, that will allow them to develop an entirely different kind of relationship,” Sinclair said. 

‘The award itself is really about ensuring that we maintain the effort and we maintain the momentum toward reconciliation,’ says Sinclair. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Since the report, he said there have been some significant changes to curriculums and learning materials in schools across the country, to allow children to learn about and experience Indigenous culture and community. 

Sinclair also said he’s encouraged by some of the efforts being made in provinces like B.C. in introducing legislation to formalize its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

“I think once that happens then I think other levels of government will follow suit relatively quickly,” he said. 

Meaning behind the medal

Sinclair will receive the Symons Medal award on Friday at the Confederation Centre.

Previous winners of the award include former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and David Suzuki. 

“The award itself is really about ensuring that we maintain the effort and we maintain the momentum toward reconciliation,” Sinclair said.

“Because Confederation and the dialogue around inclusion of Indigenous people in Confederation on their terms is an important part of our reconciliation dialogue.”

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