Reflections from National Indigenous History Month at Waterloo

Revision State: Published
Most recent version: Yes
Monday, July 12, 2021
The Honourable Murray Sinclair

The Honourable Murray Sinclair, University of Waterloo's National Indigenous History Month Keynote Speaker

Written by: Joy Braga

Warning: This article contains descriptions of the harsh treatment experienced by First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in the residential school system.

On June 29th, the Indigenous Initiatives Office hosted their keynote event for National Indigenous History Month with the Honourable Murray Sinclair. Honourable Sinclair served as Co-Chair of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba and as Chief Commissioner of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As head of the TRC, he participated in hundreds of hearings across Canada, culminating in the issuance of the TRC’s report in 2015. The Honourable Murray Sinclair was also the first Indigenous judge appointed in Manitoba and served its justice system for over 40 years. He recently retired from the Canadian Senate where he was appointed on April 2, 2016.

In this keynote, the Honourable Murray Sinclair reminded us that reconciliation is not an act of forgiving past wrongs but a process of dismantling the ongoing colonial relationship that treats Indigenous Peoples as less than human. Reconciliation is not a matter of benevolence or charity. It is a matter of respect and rights. Titled “The truth is hard. Reconciliation is harder,” this event came at an opportune time for our country, as we seek to understand how best to implement and advance the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action. Over 2,300 participants from the University of Waterloo, the Kitchener-Waterloo community and all across Canada attended this virtual event.

Honourable Sinclair began his talk by asking everyone to find a picture of a baby or young child on their phone and reflect on which emotions arise when we think of them. How old are they? How would you describe their personality? Why are they special to you? He then challenged us to delete that photo, stating that most people cannot do this because the act of deleting a photo is like the act of losing a child. He told us to imagine what it must be like for that child to be placed away in an institution where they are not allowed to see you for long periods of times, sometimes years. Not only do you lose that child, but that child loses you. To them, it seems as though you had died and you are no longer part of their life. But this child has a deep love for you. This child wants you in their life. This child needs you in their life.

Directed by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, the residential school system was designed to belittle and destroy Indigenous family ties and cultural linkages, and to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. There were 139 residential schools in Canada (not including those run by provincial governments or religious orders) and it is estimated that over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, between the ages of 4 and 16 years old, attended these schools.

Through the work of the TRC, recorded accounts from over 6,000 survivors and witnesses expose the horrifying truth behind these institutions. Indigenous children were removed from their homes and parents, separated from their siblings, punished for speaking their first language, stripped of their traditional clothing, and forced to have their hair cut short. Some students were also subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse, often at the hands of residential school staff. For many individuals, this abuse never seemed to end. Maltreatment was so common at these institutions that it became a part of the survivor and they began to mistreat others, creating a cycle of abuse and trauma. Honourable Sinclair commented that even for those who were not victimized, they lived in fear that someone would abuse them at any given moment. Living with the fear that it may happen to you or it may happen again helps to explain why many residential school survivors continued to suffer with a form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Recently, many Canadians were shocked to learn that the remains of 215 children had been discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. However, this tragic discovery did not come as a surprise to Indigenous Peoples as thousands of Indigenous children never returned home from these schools and their whereabouts remain unknown. The TRC concluded that more than 4,100 children died while attending a residential school, but the true total is likely much higher. Hundreds of unmarked graves have been uncovered in at least three other residential schools in Canada in recent weeks, including 751 found at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

Closing the event, the Honourable Sinclair spoke about the things that universities can do to advance truth and reconciliation in Canada. Universities and the public school system have perpetuated systemic racism in their course content and this needs to urgently change. Those who will become tomorrow’s leaders will largely come out of post-secondary institutions and they need to be educated on Canada’s true history. With this in mind, he suggested that all university students should receive a fundamental and basic education on this history. It is also important for future leaders to understand what racism looks like in their profession and how to deal with it appropriately. Many Indigenous people experience racism from various sources including healthcare settings, the justice system, social workers and even grocery stores. This is why it is essential to change our education system and training processes. There is a lot of work to do and it begins by acknowledging that a wrong has been done.

Finally, the Honourable Sinclair closed by stating,

“I always tell people it is never enough just to be committed to not being racist. You actually have to be antiracist. You need to confront racism. You need to address it and you need to point it out. That is how we will change society.”

To assist you on your learning journey and in taking action to ensure we are all advancing the Calls to Action within our own spaces, explore this resource guide (PDF).

Reflecting back on the rest of National Indigenous History Month, the Indigenous Initiatives Office saw much success in their events with Tracy Primeau and Deantha Edmunds:

Alumni Tracy Primeau (BA ‘98) is a proud member of the Nipissing First Nation. She is one of few women to become a CNSC licensed operator at Bruce Power and the first to do so at Bruce A. Until her very recent retirement, Tracy led the Operations Support Department while mentoring women and men in both operations and leadership roles. She also has years of volunteer and board experience both in the energy industry and in various other organizations. In her discussion on Indigenous Business and Leadership on June 16th, Tracy spoke about the resurgence of the Indigenous economy, common misconceptions about Indigenous Peoples and business, the Seven Grandfather Teachings, and best practices for engaging with Indigenous businesses and communities. She also highlighted the important statistic that Indigenous people in Canada are forming businesses at 9x the rate compared to non-Indigenous Canadians. To learn more, watch the recording of Tracy’s discussion on YouTube. We apologize that the recording for this event was delayed a few seconds, so the start of the video is abrupt, beginning mid-sentence, as Jean Becker begins her opening.

Deantha Edmunds is a proud resident of Newfoundland and Labrador and the first and only Inuk professional classical singer in Canada. She is a Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning performer and is much in demand as a singer, actor and collaborator in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous projects. In her lunchtime performance on National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21st), Deantha shared six pieces including “Sons of Labrador” from her EP My Beautiful Home, three songs from her upcoming original album Connections, “Saimartigut” from the album Pillorikput Inuit: Inuktitut Arias for All Seasons, and a poem titled “Map of Your Heart”. In between performances, she spoke about her experiences navigating the music industry, how she found purpose through music, her first international performance, and how Inuit culture played a role in her career. 

Deantha closed the event by sharing a few words of advice for Indigenous youth, 

Be kind to yourself...Stay true to yourself. And, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t... You don’t need to leave your home community to prove anything. You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone. Just be yourself. 

Deantha Edmunds

Deantha Edmunds, the first and only Inuk professional classical singer in Canada

On behalf of the Indigenous Initiatives Office, I would like to thank everyone who took it upon themselves to learn, attend these events, follow our Did You Know? series, and participate in the weekly Indigenous Quiz Questions throughout National Indigenous History Month.