Senator Murray Sinclair now feels he fits into several different communities, but belonging didn’t always come easily to him.
Growing up on a Manitoba reserve north of Winnipeg, Sinclair said he felt like many Indigenous people do: trapped between two cultures, without belonging to either.
“We were caught in a world of not being able to belong to the society we had been taken from and not being able to belong to the society that we were being forced toward,” said Sinclair, who was appointed to the Senate in 2016 after becoming Manitoba’s first Aboriginal judge.
“That led to lot of personal and social dysfunction on the part of individuals and young people… who are still feeling a tremendous sense of not belonging today.”
For Sinclair, that feeling of exclusion came to a head after he had graduated from law school at the University of Manitoba. As he started to practice as a lawyer, he found that he loved and respected the law, and immersed himself in it. But he was working with Indigenous clients, including highly respected elders, and found the law incongruous.
“I couldn’t marry the two: the source of the law I had been taught and the people to whom the law was being applied. And that was because I didn’t know the laws of my own people,” he said. “Once I understood that, I found a new challenge as a lawyer that fit my interest and my sense of who I was.”
Sinclair went on to have a successful career as lawyer, judge and the co-chair of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba before being appointed to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009. He also married and had five children, to whom he’s tried to pass along his lessons on belonging.
“One of the great joys of life is being able to belong to more than one group and being able to move from group to group easily,” said Sinclair, who will be a featured speaker at one of Dalhousie University’s Belong Forums this year.
Sinclair is among several internationally respected thinkers and change-makers visiting the campus to share their perspectives on belonging as part of the university’s 200th anniversary programming. The university has already had the pleasure of hosting forums with award-winning MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder and famed Indigenous singer-songwriter and social activist Buffy Sainte-Marie. Dalhousie is honoured to welcome four more critically acclaimed thinkers, humanitarians and activists to campus to round out the Belong Forum speaker series: Canadian Olympic Gold Medalist Mark Tewksbury (May 17), Senator Murray Sinclair (September 5), professor and autism advocate Temple Grandin (September 27) and, legendary U.S. civil rights leader Angela Davis (October 16).
According to Sinclair, all humans, and especially younger people, feel an intense need to belong. People need to know themselves if they want to feel like they belong with others, he said.
And answering these three questions is the first step on that path to self-knowledge: Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is my purpose?
“Those three questions help us answer the ultimate question, which is: Who am I?” Sinclair said.
Canada has made great strides in the realm of belonging in the past decade. The normalization of same-sex marriage, the upcoming debut of the first black person on a piece of Canadian currency, a gender-balanced federal cabinet and a Sikh man leading one of our federal political parties all point to a more welcoming society and a greater sense of belonging for all.
But Sinclair insists we still have a long way to go in order to make everyone feel like they belong – and that Indigenous Canadians will likely have a harder time answering his three questions, and feeling a sense of belonging, than many others.
“Reconciliation will not occur in my lifetime,” Sinclair said. “This is going to take many generations to do.”
That doesn’t mean, however, we shouldn’t work every day to give people the tools to make them feel a sense of belonging.
“We have to learn how to belong,” he said. “That’s one of our great challenges and that’s why those questions are so important,” said Sinclair.
“We need to give young people the tools to be able to develop a relationship with whichever group they feel they need to or want to belong to, and also to address the question of how to make other people feel they are welcome and they belong. It begins with education and grows from there.”
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.