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Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair speaks during the second day of closing events for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on June 1, 2015.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Tearing down tributes to historical figures would be "counterproductive" to reconciliation efforts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, says the former chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Sen. Murray Sinclair, who spent six years documenting the long-standing impacts of Canada's residential school system, says the debate over whether to remove Sir John A. Macdonald's name from Ontario elementary schools takes up time that could be better spent exploring how to honour and elevate Indigenous heroes.

"It is not about taking off names off buildings, it is about whether we can find a way to put Indigenous names on buildings," Sinclair said Tuesday in an interview with The Canadian Press.

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"The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that is counterproductive to ... reconciliation because it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger, but in reality, what we are trying to do, is we are trying to create more balance in the relationship."

Sinclair's remarks come after the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario passed a controversial motion calling for the removal of Macdonald's name from schools.

The motion recognizes that Macdonald has been celebrated based on an incomplete version of Canadian history, the union said, noting he played a key role in developing systems that "perpetuated genocide against Indigenous people."

"It is probably a fight, had I been asked, I would have said to avoid it," Sinclair said, adding his approach would be to include "shameful information" on a plaque along with prominent information.

Macdonald clearly played a significant role in the establishment of Canada but the establishment of the country also played a significant role in the destruction of Indigenous culture and societies, he said.

"He clearly attempted to eliminate Indigenous culture by removing children from their families and placing them with people of another race ... for the purpose of wiping out the race of people known as Indian," Sinclair said.

Macdonald also created circumstances that fuelled hardship for Indigenous people to the point where their potential to survive was challenged, Sinclair said.

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"Both of which are right within the definition of genocide within the convention on genocide," he said, referring to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime Genocide adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said "unequivocally" there are no plans to remove Macdonald's name from buildings or sites that are in the purview of the federal government.

"Reconciliation is not just about the relationship between government and Indigenous peoples," Trudeau said while standing outside the Governor General's residence after a cabinet shuffle.

"Non-indigenous Canadians have an essential role to play in how we shape a better and more responsible future for everyone who shares this land and these conversations are extremely important to have to reflect on our past and to build the right future forward together."

In June, Trudeau decided to remove the name of Hector-Louis Langevin, a father of Confederation and architect of the residential school system, from the Ottawa building that houses the Prime Minister's Office.

"He bears a significant responsibility when it comes to the issue of residential schools and he deserves, in my view, very little credit," Sinclair said.

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