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Senator Murray Sinclair says a leader’s responsibility is to offer best and most truthful advice to the people.Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

In a moment of doubt, Senator Murray Sinclair, a member of the Ojibwe First Nation, thought he wanted to be a carpenter. But an elder told Manitoba’s first Indigenous judge and former chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the law would never leave him. As a politician, jurist and community activist, he has dedicated his life to highlighting the power of conversation as a means of educating Canadians about a more complete version of their country’s history. Later this week, Mr. Sinclair will step down from the Senate after almost five years of service. He plans to mentor young lawyers in Indigenous law and to write his memoir.

What is a leader from an Indigenous viewpoint?

I don’t know that there’s a word for leader in our language. The closest thing that we have is [an] all-embracing word that means someone who helps the people. Whenever I meet a traditional leader, I see that they are the ones who sit quietly by and wait to be asked. They don’t stand up and grab the microphone. They don’t grandstand. They know that their responsibility is to give the best and most truthful advice to those who come to them and ask for it. There’s a humility in leadership.

How has your Indigenous identity given you strength?

In spending time with an elder of my community named Angus Merrick, I learned an important lesson that I still think about to this day. As a young man, I went to see him in a moment of despair, and he told me this:

“Your problem is you’ve spent all these years learning about how to work in this white man’s system, to be as much like them as you can be and to be even better than they are at what they do. But in doing that, you have lost yourself. You have to find yourself because you don’t know yet how to even be a good husband or how to be a good father, because you don’t know our teachings. When you learn all of that, then you will be able to do whatever it is that you want to do. You spent all this time learning to be a white man, but now you have to learn what it means to be Anishinaabe.”

From that moment on, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been spending my time learning what it means to be Anishinaabe. Now, I feel an obligation to pass that source of strength on to the young people. It’s important for our youth to understand what it means to be Indigenous in their own right.

What lasting effects did residential schools have on your family and your community?

My grandmother went to residential school. My aunts went to residential school. My uncles went to residential school. My dad went to residential school. They never had a chance to learn their own history, their language, their elders’ teachings or grow up as part of their family or community.

Being part of the next generation after those residential school survivors, we all had parents and grandparents who could speak the language but who would not teach it to us. The only language that I was allowed to speak at home was English. The older generations were taught that if they tried to hang onto their culture and their language, they would burn forever in hell. It became common practice for children of residential school survivors to speak English and to never be exposed to traditional ceremonies or teachings thereafter.

My family managed to rise above the trauma of residential schools. They taught us that we had a lot to offer and that it was our obligation to do what we could in the best way that we could. So, I grew up with that belief. But I also grew up knowing that we were never going to be seen as equals by the rest of the world, and that always weighs you down.

How did your experience growing up as an Indigenous youth in a predominantly non-Indigenous community affect you?

We were always looked down upon in society. In school, we were taught that Indigenous people were inferior to the Europeans who came here. Over time, it became a real burden and it was something that wore us down. A lot of our friends and relatives got overwhelmed by that.

When my son Niigaan was born, I promised myself that I would give him and show him a better life. A life that gave him a better sense of his own future than I had been able to live by. I promised him that I would always ensure that he never lacked a sense of who he was.

How can we begin to decolonize our society?

We all have to recognize that we are part of a heritage and ongoing reality of colonialism. Whether we have benefited from it or whether we have been victimized by it, we have to understand how we have been impacted by this dominant system. Oftentimes, we have been influenced to such an extent that we often don’t even know that we’re discriminating or being discriminated against. We must question what we’ve been taught and explore the possibilities of how things should be in the future.

What homework would you like non-Indigenous people to do?

Have conversations. I don’t think that we talk to each other enough. I realize the temptation of going to books. I felt at one point in my life that I could rely upon books to teach me what it was I thought I couldn’t find through conversation, but if I had found my elders through conversations, I probably wouldn’t have turned to books so much over the years.

You have to actively engage in conversation with people, and particularly you have to engage with Indigenous people to make them part of your conversation and part of your circle of friends. Ultimately, reconciliation is about establishing relationships.

What is the most important thing that Canada can do to create a new and better relationship with Indigenous peoples?

We need to change the way that we educate our children. Indigenous and non-Indigenous, they all need to grow up and be educated in a Canada with a fuller and more proper sense of the history of this country.

Indigenous youth especially need to understand the validity of their own existence as Indigenous people. Part of that responsibility falls on our school systems to understand and promote that we are a valid people.

Read more from our Indigenous business leaders series:

Trust is the foundation of leadership, says Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation

We must prioritize economic reconciliation, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business CEO Tabatha Bull says

For Tracy Bear, leadership begins with accountability, service and connection to the land

For APTN chief executive Monika Ille, leadership means honouring her Nation’s history

Pause, think, listen: National Bank Financial’s Sean St. John on using Indigenous approaches to leadership

About the series

Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.

Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.

Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and he has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.

Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is completing her master’s degree in educational leadership at McGill. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and brain sciences from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has completed graduate work at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She is a consultant in education, leadership and Indigenization for organizations and schools, and has previously held positions at the Kahnawake Education Center, the Quebec Native Women association and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. Ms. Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien’kehá:ka woman from the community of Kahnawà:ke.

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