OP-ED: Why do I do this?
OP-ED: Why do I do this?

Following the recent erasure of my service to the province of Manitoba, my dear wife asked me why I continue to engage in research and comment about the history of Indian Residential Schools (IRS). 

Why subject myself to name-calling and condemnation, not only by former Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chair Murray Sinclair, the leader of the Liberal Party of Manitoba, the New Democratic Party, column-writers like Tom Brodbeck (Winnipeg Free Press), and others, but even by the political party I supported for most of my life?

Why is it so important to me that the real and whole truth about our county’s history be honestly told?

Since I was a boy I have lived amongst Indigenous fellow Canadians. In my early years I always wondered why their lives were so much different from mine, why their lives seemed so much less fortunate than mine.

It didn’t take many more years for me to realize that the challenges in my life were indeed small, that Indigenous fortunes began and continued far behind mine.

I spent eight years visiting Indigenous communities as a court reporter and witnessing first-hand the conditions that were completely foreign to most Canadians, the poverty and dependence that led to crime, despair and so many other problems and disparities.

I spent 13 years as an MLA and minister, again visiting Indigenous communities, meeting with their leaders, but enjoying very much the company of ordinary Indigenous children and adults. I particularly remember a visit in my legislature office by a half dozen 

First Nations women from a Manitoba reserve and being told their children were being deprived of the education others on the reserve were getting. The women told me that the best housing went to others because, they said, “You have to be from the right families to get any attention.”  They also told me about other corrupt, financial practices by their leaders. 

They wanted accountability. The women wanted me to use my office to do something about this, to have the RCMP investigate. I asked for names and specifics, so I could refer matters to the proper authorities. The women became uneasy, and told me they were afraid of retribution.

I reported my meeting to the RCMP but was told that without specific allegations and names, nothing could be done. So, nothing was done. That was 30 years ago; to my knowledge little has changed.

On one occasion, a prominent Manitoba chief condemned me as a racist when I expressed concern about a key judicial finding of nepotism and an Indigenous leader’s political interference in an Indigenous child protection case.

(To digress: on one trip to northern Manitoba, I had a pleasant conversation with one of the northern chiefs. He said to me that I should go into federal politics and that I should become minister of Indian affairs. I said, “Are you sure about that? I want to get rid of the Indian Act.” He smiled at me, and replied something like, “You’d have my vote.”) 

Because of events like the above, my single greatest regret on leaving provincial politics was that I could not, and did not, do more to improve the lives of ordinary Indigenous Manitobans.

So, when TRC chair Murray Sinclair, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Grand Chief RoseAnne Archibald and others bombard all of us with allegations of forced attendance at residential schools and death – murder – in numbers far beyond what anyone ever imagined, all I can think of is how such allegations – if true – would affect the feelings of ordinary Indigenous Canadians. 

The statements by Sinclair and Archibald have become the common understanding around the world of the history of the schools. Sinclair’s statement to the United Nations in 2010 formed the basis of all the TRC’s work for the following five years, and has been reported almost daily by legacy media in all the years since.

Example: “For more than 130 years, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend Indian residential schools”. It’s not even remotely true, but Canadians have been hearing it for years.  

A very despicable person once said that if you tell a lie often enough, and if it’s big enough, people will believe it.  Unfortunately, Canadians have been hearing these statements since Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008, fifteen years ago. And too many still believe them.

Can anyone imagine what it must feel like to be told by your top leaders that your family’s ancestors lived in a time when “nearly every Indigenous child in Canada” was “forced” to attend a residential school, or that tens of thousands of innocent little children were murdered by priests, nuns, school staff, and who knows who else? 

These allegations have been made by TRC chair Murray Sinclair and AFN Grand Chief Archibald, respectively. They have not been qualified, corrected, or withdrawn.

Worse, no “respectable” legacy media have ever, to my knowledge, questioned either of these leaders about these horrible statements, statements which research proves are clearly untrue and grossly exaggerated. But they remain statements that hurt people badly.

It is disgusting to me that Indigenous people, in 2023, should be treated this way, by their own leaders. Just as disgraceful is that these leaders are aided and abetted by the federal government.

It is perfectly proper – essential – that the real truth be told. But let it be the truth. Finding and telling the truth is not denialism. But because real hurt was inflicted on too many Indigenous children, the matter becomes too sensitive for people to look deeper and discover that they’ve been deceived.

But Indigenous people are like everyone else. They will embrace the truth, when it is told. As yet, they have not been told the truth. This is why I have challenged Murray Sinclair to meet with me and a camera in a television studio, so that we can finally tell Indigenous Canadians the whole truth. This is why Murray Sinclair must not be allowed to continue to enjoy avoiding accountability. Indigenous people deserve much better. 

But today, Murray Sinclair continues to hide from my challenge, issued June 10 of this year.

Dear wife: at school, our grandchildren are being taught the above appalling version of the history of our country. Our soldier dads fought alongside brave Indigenous Canadian soldiers in Europe for something better than this. These are also reasons why I do what I do.

James C. McCrae is the former attorney general of Manitoba and Canadian citizenship judge.

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