OTTAWA — Sen. Murray Sinclair is returning to his legal roots, while also keeping his seat in the upper chamber — at least for now.
The former chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who was also the first Indigenous judge appointed in Manitoba, is joining Cochrane Saxberg LLP, Manitoba’s largest Indigenous law firm.
Sinclair, a Manitoba senator who sits with the Independent Senators Group, will work as a senior mentor to lawyers at the firm on the finer points and emerging issues involving Indigenous law in Canada.
Sinclair, 69, said that after spending the last several months at home in Winnipeg during the pandemic-imposed lockdown, he was reflecting more and more on the law and the ways in which it is shifting in Canada around Indigenous issues.
Indigenous lawyers who attend mainstream law schools are not necessarily trained in practising law from an Indigenous perspective, Sinclair said, and he believes now is the time to develop a greater understanding in the legal community in Canada.
“Particularly in this time when more and more Indigenous communities are beginning to exercise their sense of self-government, their sense of taking control of their lives, their sense of doing things for themselves and getting out from under the control of government — as they’re doing it they’re doing things like asking, ’How can we develop a law about education?’ How can we develop a child-welfare law that truly respects our traditions and our customs and our beliefs?” Sinclair said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
“Those questions are really interesting questions but necessary to be able to answer and young Indigenous lawyers are not any better trained at it through the law school experience than anybody else. So they’re looking for someone to help them understand that, and I thought I might be able to do that.”
The way law is practised in Canada is changing and will further change as the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, continues to shift their treatment of laws.
“The challenge of the courts is going to be to figure out a way to reconcile the current laws of Canada with the pre-existing legal rights of Indigenous Peoples,” he said.
This was a key element in the conflicts that led to Canada-wide rail and road blockades earlier this year after some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed a natural-gas pipeline, known as the Coastal GasLink project, in British Columbia.
One of the major sticking points in that conflict was a lack of clarity about who had the right to give permission to the pipeline company to build on the disputed traditional territory. There was also a lack of understanding about the traditional law of the Wet’suwet’en people.
Sinclair said he wants to help foster a better understanding of these traditional laws and how they will interact with communities and developments in future.
“Everybody’s now scrambling to figure all this out,” he said.
“They’re basically being told you can’t continue to drive the car you’ve been driving, you’ve got to learn to drive this new vehicle and it’s got a different stick shift. Now, one of my ambitions, is to show them how to drive the new vehicle.”
Sinclair said he will continue to serve in the Senate, even while he is also speaking with the Manitoba Bar Association about developing a training program for all lawyers in the province to help them become more aware of Indigenous issues.
Sinclair was named to the Senate on the advice of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016 and is entitled to remain until 2026, when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 75.
But Sinclair said that when he was appointed, he told those close to him he would commit to at least five years as a senator.
That self-imposed term is almost up, but Sinclair said he’ll wait and see how things go with this new endeavour alongside his work in the Senate.
“I plan to fulfil my commitment and we’ll see how things go as we get to the point where one or the other will overwhelm me, maybe both, and then I’ll make a decision at that time,” he said.
“But right now, my plan is, when the Senate calls, I’ll be sitting.”
Harold Cochrane, a founding partner at Cochrane Saxberg LLP, says he is excited to that Sinclair will be lending his significant expertise in human rights and Indigenous law.
“Having Sen. Sinclair join our law firm is kind of like having Wayne Gretzky join your hockey team. Wayne Gretzky is the greatest hockey player ever, Murray Sinclair is Canada’s most respected Indigenous rights advocate,” Cochrane said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Sen. Murray Sinclair will reach the mandatory retirement age in 2016, instead of 2026.