Early Life and Education
Sinclair was born in 1951 in the Selkirk area, north of Winnipeg, on the former St. Peter’s reserve, to Henry and Florence Sinclair. Florence died of a stroke when Sinclair was still an infant, and he was sent to live with his grandparents, Jim and Catherine Sinclair, whom subsequently raised him and his three siblings. A bright student from a young age, Sinclair skipped grades three and seven, and was the valedictorian and athlete of the year of his high school class at Selkirk Collegiate in 1968.
Following graduation, Sinclair was enrolled at the University of Manitoba for two years, but postponed his degree and returned home to care for his ailing grandmother. There, he began working with the Selkirk Friendship Centre; and, by 1972, he was the regional vice president for the Manitoba Métis Federation. (See also Friendship Centres.)
In 1973, Howard Pawley, the attorney general of Manitoba, asked Sinclair to be his personal assistant. With his interest now turned towards law, Sinclair applied to the University of Manitoba’s faculty of law, and enrolled in 1976. In his second year, he won the A.J. Christie Prize in Civil Litigation, given to students with the highest standing in the Introduction to Advocacy course. He graduated in 1979; and since then has earned several honorary degrees from various Canadian universities, including the University of Ottawa and the University of Winnipeg.
Sinclair was called to the Manitoba Bar in 1980 and began practising law. He focused primarily on civil and criminal litigation, Indigenous law and human rights. Over time, he became known for his expertise in the field and his ability to skillfully balance between the Canadian legal system and the traditional teachings of the Ojibwe and other Indigenous peoples. This would earn him admiration in the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community. Early on, however, Sinclair struggled to gain the respect he deserved.
In one of his first cases, the judge mistook him for the defendant and asked him what he was charged with. This revelatory incident demonstrated precisely why Sinclair felt he was called to practise law. He believed that Indigenous peoples were being charged disproportionately with minor crimes to fill police quotas. Sinclair’s opinions often drew media attention, with one critique of the justice system producing the headline: “Police Prey on Natives, Lawyer Says.” As his popularity grew, he was offered a position as a judge. He declined the offer twice. Instead, he continued to provide legal counsel to various organizations, including the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, the Manitoba Métis Federation and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. (See also Indigenous Peoples in Canadian Law and Justice Systems of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Career as Justice
In 1988, at age 37, Sinclair finally accepted the offer to become a judge. As Associate Chief Judge of the Manitoba Provincial Court, he became Manitoba’s first, and Canada’s second, Indigenous judge. In the same year, the Government of Manitoba commissioned the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. Due in large part to his extensive background working with human rights and Indigenous issues, Sinclair was appointed by his mentor, Howard Pawley, now premier of Manitoba, to be co-commissioner of the inquiry. In January 2001, Sinclair was appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba, once again becoming the first Indigenous judge at this judicial level.
Aboriginal Justice Inquiry
The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was created by the Government of Manitoba in April 1988 in response to two legal incidents involving Indigenous people. The first was the November 1987 trial of two men, Dwayne Johnston and James Houghton, for the 1971 murder of Helen Betty Osborne, who was Cree. The second was the internal police investigation that followed the March 1988 murder of John Joseph Harper, a member of the Wasagamack First Nation, by Winnipeg police officer Robert Cross. These two incidents were widely seen as potent examples of the way in which the justice system was failing the Indigenous peoples in Manitoba. The premier of Manitoba appointed Justice Sinclair and Associate Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench Alvin C. Hamilton to be co-commissioners of the inquiry.
The inquiry’s report was released in 1991 and found that there was systemic racism within Manitoba’s criminal justice system. It stated that: “Aboriginal people who are arrested are more likely than non-Aboriginal people to be denied bail, spend more time in pre-trial detention and spend less time with their lawyers, and, if convicted, are more likely to be incarcerated.” Over 300 recommendations were made to reform the justice system by the report, and it caused the Manitoba government to re-examine the way it treated Indigenous peoples. Many believed that the report marked a turning point for the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and it gained widespread attention when it was mentioned specifically by an Amnesty International report on human rights, Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada (2004).
Pediatric Cardiac Surgery Inquiry
Throughout 1994, 12 children died while undergoing cardiac surgery at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre (WHSC). After the WHSC’s Pediatric Surgery Cardiac Surgery Program was suspended in 1995, the parents of the deceased children called for a public inquiry into their deaths. Soon after, the chief medical examiner for the Province of Manitoba ordered an inquest into the deaths, and Associate Chief Justice Sinclair was appointed to head the inquiry. Sinclair spent the next six months teaching himself as much as he could about the medical complexities of pediatric heart surgery.
The hearings began at the end of 1995, and continued into 1998. They produced more than 80 witness testimonies and some 50,000 pages of transcripts. In November 2000, Justice Sinclair completed his final report, which concluded that at least 10 of the 12 deaths could have been prevented had there been proper treatment. The report also noted that evidence suggested that in most of the cases, the parents were not provided with enough information to allow them to properly provide informed consent to conduct the surgeries.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
In 2007, survivors of Canada’s residential schools reached a settlement with various Christian churches across Canada, as well as the federal government. As a facet of this settlement, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to tell the history of residential schools. These schools had been created as an aspect of federal policy under the Indian Act, which worked to systematically assimilate Indigenous peoples into the broader Canadian culture, and remove them from their traditional and ancestral methods of education and child rearing. Under the policy, children were forbidden to speak Indigenous languages and to practise their traditional faiths. The goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to play an integral role in the healing and reconciliation between Indigenous peoples, the churches and federal government.
First approached in 2007 to chair the commission, Justice Sinclair turned down the opportunity. Having completed the Pediatric Cardiac Surgery Inquiry, and aware that both his grandparents and parents were sent to residential schools, Sinclair was worried about the emotionally exhaustive nature of the commission, and withdrew his name from the list of possible chairmen.
After minimal success by the three original members of the commission — Justice Harry S. Laforme (chair), Charlotte Dumont-Smith (commissioner) and Jane Brewin Morley (commissioner) — Sinclair was asked again in 2009 to chair. Having felt that the initial commission had done little to ease the survivors’ pain, he accepted the position under one condition: the group would no longer operate from a majority-rule capacity, but rather would function via consensus.
Sinclair instituted additional policy changes, including a relocation of the commission’s headquarters from Ottawa to Winnipeg, a removal of the accountability of the TRC chair to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the establishment of a relationship with the churches to make sure that they were represented fairly. These changes, along with a lawsuit filed by Sinclair against the Conservative federal government when they failed to provide millions of archival records pertaining to residential schools, helped to demonstrate that he was serious about documenting the stories of the survivors, families and communities affected by residential schools.
By 2015, more than 7,000 former students had testified, and the final report (released 15 December 2015) spanned six volumes and contained over two million words. The report made 94 recommendations to the federal government. It also revealed the systematic abuse by the schools on the children, policies that Sinclair referred to as “cultural genocide.” This included compulsory sterilization, at least 3,200 deaths from disease and malnourishment, although the number is estimated to be much higher. Sinclair himself argued that the number is closer to 6,000 overall.
Career as Senator
In 2016, following his incredible work in human and Indigenous rights throughout his tenure as a justice in Manitoba, Governor General David Johnston appointed Sinclair (on the advice of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) to be Manitoba’s senator in Parliament. With his appointment, Sinclair became the nation’s 16th Indigenous senator.
Since his appointment, Sinclair has sat on various Senate Standing Committees, including those on Indigenous peoples, constitutional issues and fisheries and oceans. In 2017, Senator Sinclair was asked to lead an investigation into the into the Thunder Bay Police Services Board, in light of accusations of systemic racism in the force. (See alsoPolice.) He remains an outspoken advocate on Indigenous rights issues both in the Senate and in public.
Community Work and Activism
Sinclair has taught courses in Indigenous law at the University of Manitoba since 1981, and has served on numerous community boards, including the Boy Scouts, John Howard Society, Royal Canadian Air Cadets, Canadian Club, Canadian Native Law Students Association and Board of Regents of the University of Winnipeg.
Sinclair and his wife have also established Abinochi Zhawayndakozhuwin Inc., an Ojibwe Immersion Nursery School program in Winnipeg, which delivers an entire educational program conducted completely in the Ojibwe language.
Sinclair is a member of the Three Fires Society, a long-standing council of alliances of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. He and his wife, Katherine (Animiki-quay) Morrisseau-Sinclair, have five children: Manon Beaudrie (Miskodagaginquay), James (Niigonwedom), Déne (Beendighay-geezhigo-quay), Gazheek (Gazhegwenabeek) and a newly adopted daughter, Jessica. He has three grandchildren: Sarah, Misko and Migizii.
Honours and Awards
Over the course of his long career, Sinclair has been awarded a variety of prestigious honours, including:
- One of the first National Aboriginal Achievement awards (1994).
- Manitoba Bar Association’s Equality Award (2001).
- Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice’s Medal of Justice (2015).
- Manitoba Bar Association’s Distinguished Service Award (2016).
- He has also received honorary doctorates from eight Canadian universities, and in 2018, was awarded an honorary LLD from the Law Society of Ontario.