Ladies and Gentlemen;
I am privileged to be a recipient of an Honourary Degree from Carleton University today and to share this very special day with this special group of people.
I want therefore, to begin by extending my thank you and express my appreciation to the University community of Carleton for allowing me to be here and for the honour you bestow on me.
I also wish to acknowledge and congratulate Dr. Ben Heppner, who is also receiving an Honourary Doctorate later today from Carleton.
Today, I think of the Military Veterans living and past, for whom and with whom we stood on Wednesday of this week at the National Cenotaph in remembrance of their sacrifices. At such times we were also called upon to remember and honour the victims of mass violence around the world, a point brought home to us by the events in Paris yesterday. Like many of you I suspect, I grieve for those victims and their families. Events like those teach us the importance of love, of family and of friends, and also of the importance of celebrating moments and achievements such as this.
Graduates, I am proud to share this day with you. We will forever be connected.
As we gather here on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation, I am guided in my thoughts by the realization that though I may think in my heart that it was not so long ago that I once sat where you now sit, in reality my moment was decades ago.
Forty years ago, on my first day of law school, I was sitting in a discussion circle with classmates, asking ourselves why we were in Law. Some talked about wanting to “make lots of money”, some wanted to change the world, some wanted to be famous trial lawyers.
I wanted to understand.
I wanted to understand why I did not know the laws of my people. I wanted to know why Canada did not know the laws of my people. I wanted to know why a Federal law could define my people, and we could not define ourselves. I wanted to know why I could not speak the language of my grandmother or know the history and traditions of my people – the Anishinaabe. I wanted to know why my grandmother and so many others believed that by not teaching me those things she was saving my life.
I wanted to know why and how, in 1913, my family and neighbors could be forcibly removed from our traditional territory – from prime agricultural lands along the Red River – from the very reserve the Crown had agreed to set aside for us during the negotiation of Treaty 1 just 43 years earlier in 1870 – and be forcibly marched over 200 miles to flood prone swampy land, far to the north, to live there forever.
I wanted to know why and how my tall, silent and strong grandfather had been able to resist that forcible removal and remain on his farm and why a handful of other families had been able to do so as well, despite the use of the army to move others along.
I wanted to know why the displacement of our people was never taught in the schools on the very land from which our people had been displaced.
I wanted to know why my young and beautiful mother had died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis – a disease that killed our people by the thousands and which few of the families of my non-Indigenous friends had ever experienced.
I wanted to know why my serious and stern grandmother – who took us in after my mother died to raise us when she was 63 and my grandfather was almost 70 – never grew up in the house of her mother – why she was raised in a convent by nuns, unlike her seemingly silly sisters whose laughing energy overwhelmed our small house when they came to visit each summer.
I wanted to know why my grandmother and my uncles and aunts who went to residential schools never talked about it, unlike the parents of my non-Indigenous friends who joked and told stories about their teachers and classmates, and held high school reunions.
I wanted to know about the sense of injustice carried by all of the adults in my life like a sword and a shield, ready to be wielded at a moment’s notice at the smallest slight or glance or word.
I wanted to know if anything could be done about that sense of injustice or if we would spend the rest of our lives in virtual and real conflict with our non-Indigenous friends and neighbors.
I wanted to know if all of the things my family had experienced had happened to others.
That’s why I went to law school. I wanted to know why, and I wanted to know what to do. I have dedicated my life to that process of discovery. It has not been easy, but as you know, I have shared its burdens and its joys with many people along the way.
I am now growing old. My body does not let me do what used to be easy, and when it does, it takes much longer. At a time when I want to cram so much living into what little time remains for me, I have no choice but to move more slowly.
But I have learned that as you move more slowly, you have time to think more carefully and to ponder the burdens and the benefits of the load you carry. So, I have come to this conclusion.
Despite all of the pain of the past and the complexities of the problems we face, I want to be your friend. And I want you to be mine.
I want to respect you and I want you to respect me, even if we never get to meet.
I want us to find a way to stand and walk together and live side by side, so the world can see that this great nation was formed not just by the Europeans who came here, but also by us who were here already.
I want us to come to a new realization of ourselves as a Nation for the sake of our children and their children, and the children who will be here seven generations from now. I want us to be better than our ancestors, and for those children of the future to be better than theirs. I want us to strive to be perfect, not just as individuals but as Canadians – knowing that we may never be, but knowing that from time to time we will have those moments when we will come …oh…so…close, and that the process of striving will be consistent with our obligation to the future.
I have seen some amazing things and borne witness to some amazing developments over the years. I have suffered personally at the huge holes in my heart left from losing members of my family and some of my friends far too early. And I have shared the joy and excitement of young people such as you, on the edge of greatness.
Personally, I have gone from the self-absorbed brilliance of a young know-it-all lawyer before I was married, to a deep sense of my inadequacies as a husband and a father.
I have been both lifted and humbled at the love of my beautiful wife, and dismayed at my inability to be all that she needs. Her awareness of my inherent limitations as a husband and her willingness to help make me better, has, I know, been a challenge, and is, she will tell you, still a work in progress.
I have felt overwhelmed at the enormity of my responsibility to my children to ensure they grew up not only to do better than me, but more importantly, to enjoy a better life than I had.
I have also basked in the unquestioning, yet defining, love of my grandchildren who are impressed at my knowledge and my work. It is their love and respect and kindness, which makes me feel brilliant once again, but with a much greater sense of humility.
During much of my life I struggled with those personal responsibilities alongside my growing public ones, and I have to say, I was constantly faced with the guilt of inadequacy as I saw no change in what I believed to be important over so many years. My process of discovery uncovered a lot of painful things – painful not only for me, but painful also for this country.
Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples is nothing in which this country can take pride – at least, to this point in time. But I sense we are on the cusp of something special, as this country begins to come to terms with our history.
Since we released the summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings and our Calls to Action in June of this year, I have been inspired at the public reaction to what we said, and I have been inspired at the efforts of so many segments of society to work for reconciliation.
As the new generation of professionals and scholars of today, glowing in your accomplishments, I hope that you can see that you are the beneficiaries of our work at the TRC. You are not only inheriting the painful legacies of the past, you are also inheriting the awareness and knowledge of why and how, and a framework for defining Canada’s new relationship with its Indigenous peoples, for that is the edge of the future upon which we sit.
Armed with that knowledge Graduates, we will now be looking to you to continue the conversation of reconciliation which we have begun. We will be looking to you to move this great country of ours into a new and truthful sense of itself, to shed the cloak of pain and shame and to walk with Canada’s Indigenous people into the future where our children will be able to talk to and about each other in a more respectful way. Where your children and my grandchildren can be friends for life respecting each other’s past and future, knowing everything that has happened in this country.
There are among you those who will define that path to reconciliation with greater clarity than we can at present. We know the objective – a relationship of mutual respect – but like a marathon, we can’t see the finish line yet, or the challenges along the way. We may not see them for a while, but like every marathoner, you have to believe there’s a finish line and that you can get there with effort, or you will not even start. If you don’t believe in the race you will not know the importance of continuing to the finish. You have to believe that doing something about this history is the right thing to do, and you have to be fearless in doing what you can.
But be forewarned, there will be critics. There are naysayers out there – some on the sidelines and some among you – who do not believe that any wrong has been done or that things need to be changed or that they have any responsibility to that process. Just remember that such critics define the problem so they do not have any responsibility for it, and even if they acknowledge the problem, they rarely have a plan.
They are comfortable in their criticism because they can not see that this could very easily have happened to them. Or that this could happen again. With the growing strength and influence of other world powers they do not realize that some day, Canada may be colonized again, and how will you know how to deal with that if you have not learned how to deal with this.
I am reminded of the words of US President Theodore Roosevelt who said this (sexism edited for this day and age):
“It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong one stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends themselves in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if they fail, at least fails while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So graduates, congratulations on your achievement today. Bask in the glory and the honour of the moment….for tomorrow, the real work begins.
Come and join me as we dare greatly.
Dear Justice Murray Sinclair,
Thank-you for sharing this address. I am a retired teacher. After participating in several TRC’s I have also been asking questions about how come I didn’t know. I would have been a much humbler, but better teacher if I had.
I grew up along the Red River on land granted to my great great grandfather in 1874. This was your people’s land. Listening to the stories at TRC and the final report in Ottawa has brought me to my knees. I am sorry.
Thank-you for your work on TRC. Blessings on you and your family as you continue to work for justice for indigenous people across Canada.
Lydia Wiens Sent from my iPad
Chi miigwetch for sharing your speech. It is very relative and full of meaning. Congrats on your honorary degree! It is a reflection of the self sacrifice and hard work you have dedicated yourself to. It will be interesting to see how the new government will work with our people. It gives us hope.