When I hear Murray Sinclair’s name mentioned, I pay attention. He is on my list of individuals who will leave the world better than they found it, an accomplishment every single one of us should aspire to. Mr. Sinclair is Anishinaabe and a member of the Peguis First Nation. Chief Peguis was of the Saulteaux people. In the 1790s, Peguis led his people from Sault Ste Marie to a settlement at Netley Creek on the west shore of the Red River, north of what is now Selkirk, Manitoba. It was Chief Peguis and the Saulteaux people who helped the early Red River Settlers, who interred the bodies of those settlers and Hudson’s Bay Company servants who were killed in the Seven Oaks Massacre in 1815. He was a beloved gentle man. Murray Sinclair creates the same image for me.
I have been looking for answers as to what reconciliation looks like and how I can personally participate in that process. I started by reading the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released in 2015; a big read. In my search, I tap into every resource I can find – the writings of Indigenous people; follow Rainy River District Right Relations Circle on Facebook; visit the Diversity Thunder Bay site whose mission is to celebrate difference, and end racism and discrimination; listen to young people with Indigenous heritage to learn about their thoughts, their needs, their hopes, and ambitions. And when Murray Sinclair speaks – I listen.
I recently read an Opinion piece in the Globe & Mail from an interview with Murray Sinclair, written by Karl Moore and Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer, published 24 January 2021. “[Sinclair] 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,” the article says. Mr. Sinclair spoke about leadership and his words paralleled with what I discovered in research I have been doing. He said there isn’t a word in Indigenous language that translates to “leader”, but rather “an all-embracing word that means someone who helps people.” A leader in Mr. Sinclair’s experience has been the one who sits quietly, waiting to be asked. “There is a humility in leadership,” he stated. No one exemplifies this, in my estimation, more than Murray Sinclair.
I relied on Victor Lytwyn’s book, Muskekowuck Athinuwick: The Original People of the Great Swampy Land published in 2002, for my research in my current work. Lytwyn comments on the pattern of leadership exhibited during the fur trade. William Falconer, the Master at Severn House from 1774-1782 wrote in his post log, “[Indigenous people] are subject to no foreign power, neither have they any Monarch of their own, every man being sole Governor of his family.” Andrew Graham in his “Observations on Hudson’s Bay” wrote, “The father or head of a family owns no superior, obeys no command.” The Hudson’s Bay Company was staffed mostly by Orkney men. The British class structure was spread across the globe, and few company officers paused to consider the style of leadership they were witnessing among Omushkego and its positive attributes. The Lowland Cree were deemed to be egalitarian in nature, but their leadership was well entrenched in their customs before contact, and this leadership was very different from the European construct. In the first trading ventures on the east coast of James Bay in 1668 to1670, Zachariah Gillam recognized this difference in leadership structure and wrote about it. Toby Morantz in his interpretation of Gillam’s observations wrote that the style of leadership “confounded some anthropologists”. Leadership did not come from a place of force or dictatorship, but instead those who led did so by example, using their superior life skills, wisdom, and experience. Wouldn’t we have a different society today if Indigenous practice had been adopted rather than crushed.
Many of Mr. Sinclair’s relatives attended residential institutions, where they were taught, “if they tried to hang on to their culture and their language, they would burn forever in hell.” That was a cruel but effective tool used by those institutions to eliminate the preservation of culture and language. Mr. Sinclair, like all of us, was taught that Indigenous people were inferior to Europeans. This opinion is evident in all the research I have done, all the thousands of pages I have read from the fur trade era. Colonialism is part of all our heritage, Mr. Sinclair reminds us, whether we were victimized or benefited.
I learn from the example of my great-niece. She is great, but she is also the daughter of my nephew. Timea Enge walks among you as she works toward creating her own relationship with reconciliation and is an active member of the Métis Nation of Ontario. She inspires me with her dedication to find pathways to understanding and equality, willing to share her discoveries. She embraces her Indigenous roots with respect, dignity, and celebration.
Mr. Sinclair’s gentle voice encourages us to engage in conversation. Books teach us valuable information, but conversation is where understanding can be found. Reconciliation is about relationship.