I mourn the loss of Jim Sinclair, a great Aboriginal leader. I first met Jim 42 years ago on November 16, 1970, the anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel, when Metis leaders met and decided to form the Native Council of Canada
. Jim was chosen as our first spokesperson. In my three terms as NCC President in the early 1970′s, I had the great privilege of having Jim present as we struggled and lobbied to get recognition from the federal government and attention to our issues. He was a strong and towering figure who, when he spoke, was listened to. His eloquence in articulating the desperate situations of our people at the time were a major contribution to our success in getting a million dollars for emergency housing repairs at our first meeting with the President of CMHC and helped to pave the way for us to get a Rural and Native Housing Program to build 50,000 new homes within 5 years. I am grateful to have known Jim for these past four decades, for having the chance to work with him and build a lasting friendship and to have had the opportunity to spend some precious time together on the course. I will miss him but will always have him in my mind and my heart. I send my sincere condolences to Jim’s family at this time of sorrow.
Below is an excerpt of an obituary published in the Regina Leader Post:
June 3, 1933 – November 9, 2012
Aboriginal leader Jim Sinclair passed away with his family by his side on November 9, 2012. For over 50 fifty years, Jim championed Treaty and Aboriginal rights of Indigenous peoples and left an indelible mark on the international stage that will be felt for generations to come. As a founding member of both the Native Council of Canada and the Metis National Council and past President of the Association of Metis and Non- Status Indians of Saskatchewan (AMNSIS), Jim’s passion and commitment to equal justice for his people will live on forever. His great oratory ability moved people and governments to deal with Aboriginal people’s immediate needs and rights. His work led to the creation of many institutions including the Gabriel Dumont Institute, the Saskatchewan Native Economic Development Corporation, Metis Addictions Council, Urban Native Housing Corporation and Provincial Metis Housing Corporation. In 1982, he was one of the prominent leaders that successfully lobbied to have the Métis included in the Canadian Constitution. Widely recognized for his work, Jim received numerous awards including the Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Canadian Senate, the Metis Women of Saskatchewan, the Metis National Council and the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards.
Jim’s life was one of constant challenge and struggle. There was no greater orator who could articulate better the desperate needs of Aboriginal peoples. He was tenacious in his resolve to bring about change in their way of life. His accomplishments are towering but his greatest legacy is his speech at the end of the failed First Ministers’ Conference on the Rights of the Aboriginal Peoples when he condemned Premiers Bill Vanderzalm of BC and Grant Devine of Saskatchewan for their role in blocking acceptance of a federal proposal that would have given constitutional recognition to the Aboriginal right of self-government. I plan to have the video of that seminal moment on this website later today.
John Weinstein, author of Quiet Revolution West, the Rebirth of Métis Nationalism provided a glimpse of Jim in his book…
Championing the Cause of Métis Nationalism – A Few Profiles from the Life of Jim Sinclair
(From Quiet Revolution West, the Rebirth of Métis Nationalism)
From the Fringe to Political Machine
Sinclair grew up among “road allowance people,” destitute Métis living in slum dwellings on the sides of public roads. At night, he heard tales of the 1885 resistance told in hushed tones by people still fearful of reprisals. “Road allowance people” were regularly harassed by local authorities wishing to avoid making relief payments. Sinclair’s family was evicted from their shack and forced to live in a tent farther from Punnichy. From there, Sinclair attended the mostly white school, where he was subjected to incessant racism and brutality.
In 1950, his family moved to Regina and the half-breed tent city alongside its “nuisance grounds” or garbage dump. Welfare and occasional manual labour were his only means of support. At night, local whites drove cars through the camps, hurling insults and sometimes trampling tents. As Regina grew and the “nuisance grounds” moved farther out, the tents moved with them. Succumbing to the hopelessness of poverty, Sinclair turned to alcohol. For the next ten years, he drifted from half-breed slums to skid row sections of towns, his life a continuous drunken stupor. For two years, he lived out of a derelict car. On more than one occasion, he woke up on a floor after a party near someone who’d been stabbed to death.
His sole source of inspiration during this period was Napoleon Lafontaine, a Métis Society of Saskatchewan (MSS) local leader whose followers fought for their dignity with their fists. Under Lafontaine’s influence, Sinclair began to realize that his condition and those of many other “road allowance people” could be overcome through self-help and organizing. Sensing a purpose to his life, Sinclair fought off alcoholism. Then he plunged into work, banding poor, alcohol-plagued Métis into self-help groups so they could gain control over their lives. In the process, he tangled with welfare authorities, the police, and the church, which branded him a dangerous radical.
The self-help movement became an integral part of the reorganization of the MSS later in the l960s. Under the influence of radical activist Howard Adams, Sinclair became aware of the political roots of Métis problems. The MSS used community organizing and confrontational politics to politicize Métis people. This heavy emphasis on political action and control at the local level would influence Sinclair’s distrust of distant and top-heavy national organizations.
In contrast to the ideological approach of the MSS during Adams’ presidency in the late 1960s (cut short due to illness), Sinclair practised pragmatism from the day he succeeded Adams. He believed that Métis people could not grasp the political objectives of nationalism as long as they were locked in poverty and dependency. Only by first assuming responsibility for themselves as individuals could the Métis achieve self-determination as a people. While Adams had distrusted government-funded programs as attempts to depoliticize and bureaucratize Aboriginal associations, Sinclair encouraged their creation as a means for his followers to gain control over their lives and as a focal point for political awareness.
Scores of marches, sit-ins, and camp-ins to improve living conditions helped to release more government funds for social and economic programs. When given a miserly $5,000 for a housing program, Sinclair ordered it converted into nickels that were then carted in wheelbarrows to the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation office in Regina. As the floor flooded with coins, he told reporters that the Métis were fed up with “nickel and dime” programs. Sinclair made sure to channel the energy that went into these programs through the MSS. Unlike other provinces where governments often funded independent Aboriginal agencies and societies to provide services to Aboriginal people, in Saskatchewan all these functions, including housing, communications, and job training, were kept under Sinclair’s central control.
The crowning achievement of Sinclair’s drive for Métis self-reliance was the founding in 1978 of the Gabriel Dumont Institute, the educational arm of MSS. It would later become affiliated with the University of Regina and expand into a network of centres throughout Saskatchewan, developing the educational components of programs in areas such as economic development, employment, job training, and culture. It also involved Métis in the public education system, training teachers, developing curriculum, and launching adult/community education programs. Sinclair viewed the Dumont Institute as a training ground for the development of professional management of Métis affairs and institutions that would accompany any successful exercise of political autonomy.
A prairie populist, Sinclair believed that Aboriginal leaders had to be directly elected by and responsible to the people at the grassroots level. In the late 1970s, his association had pioneered the province-wide “one person, one vote” ballot box electoral system; thus, Sinclair could claim that the thousands of people going to the polls on Métis election days made him as legitimate a leader as MPs or MLAs. Whether giving speeches, debating opponents in his favourite “bear-pit session,” or “rapping” with reporters, Sinclair personified the populist politician; a large, powerful man, at least a decade older than he looked, he exhorted his audience in a style reminiscent of the Bible Belt preachers he’d heard so often on skid row. Once, fed up with public stereotyping of “half-breeds” as welfare cases, he declined an invitation to meet the queen, telling reporters she was the “biggest welfare bum in the world.”
By the end of the 1970s, Sinclair had become the closest thing to a household name and his organization the closest thing to a well-greased political machine among Métis people anywhere in Canada, with Sinclair lieutenants Jimmy “D” Durocher and Wayne “Millions” Mackenzie dispensing largesse to the faithful, who didn’t have to be reminded of the source of the start-up money for a gas bar, the new roof on the house, or a seat in a training centre. From his headquarters in Regina, Sinclair commanded the support of more than 120 locals, regional offices, salaried board members, full-time legal counsel, and hundreds of employees throughout Saskatchewan. The annual “Back to Batoche” celebrations were expanded into massive expositions of Métis culture, drawing as many as 20,000 people to the site of the 1885 resistance.
Sinclair Takes on Prime Minister Trudeau
(March 1983 after the Métis were denied their own representation in advance of the first constitutional conference on the rights of Aboriginal peoples)
In the nation’s capital on Wednesday morning, March 9, a perplexed minister of justice and his associates met with Sinclair in a final bid to defuse a legal powder keg about to blow up in their faces. MacGuigan, who had earlier told the press that the Métis should take the Native Council of Canada (NCC) to court for their seats, now encouraged Sinclair to sign an out-of-court settlement offering one NCC seat to Sinclair in a personal capacity. Sinclair rejected the offer; the Métis people, not an individual, were taking on the state, he declared, and the NCC was irrelevant to their action.
Deputy Minister of Justice Roger Tassé advised Sinclair that the prime minister didn’t have a constitutional obligation to invite the Métis National Council (established a few days earlier by the three Prairie Métis associations). Sinclair replied that, when the AFN was invited, the Indians were invited; when ICNI was invited, the Inuit were invited. “Who did you invite when you invited the NCC—Indians or Métis?” he asked accusingly…. In fact, Sinclair intended to dispute the prime minister’s original invitation to the NCC on the ground that it had not been made to the Métis, only to an organization of which the Métis had been a part. As a consequence, no invitation had ever been extended to the Métis people to participate in the constitutional conference as required by the Constitution Act.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sinclair appeared in a prestigious law office in downtown Ottawa to be cross-examined under oath on his affidavit in support of the Métis position. The affidavit was a blow-by-blow chronology of the political realignment. It concluded that the Métis people would suffer irreparable harm to their future political, economic, and cultural rights as a result of their exclusion from the constitutional conference….
Assistant Deputy Minister of Justice Ian Binnie tried to establish that Métis were a diverse population represented by the NCC from coast to coast. Sinclair retorted that Sir John A. Macdonald hadn’t sent troops to crush any Métis in the Maritimes but to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. When a frustrated Binnie reminded Sinclair that this was a legal case, Sinclair shot back that it was a political case…. By the end of the day, the die had been cast for a landmark court battle. Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982, had recognized but not defined “Métis.” To determine whether the Métis had been invited to the constitutional conference, the courts would have to rule on who, exactly, were the Métis….
On Thursday, March 10, legal proceedings moved to the Supreme Court of Ontario in Toronto, the only available space for a court hearing. With the case generating widespread media coverage, the federal government was under considerable pressure to settle with the Métis. Premier Lougheed had by now telexed the prime minister, calling for separate representation for the prairie Métis. In the House of Commons, the Tories were attacking the government for not having “shouldered its responsibility” and guaranteed two seats for the Métis.
A confident Jim Sinclair entered Osgoode Hall at 10:15 a.m. to appear on behalf of the prairie Métis plaintiffs against defendant Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Métis were applying to a judge of the High Court of Justice for declarations that they were entitled to participate in the upcoming first ministers conference and that the prime minister had failed to invite them, a writ of mandamus compelling the prime minister to invite them, and an injunction restraining the prime minister from convening the conference until such time as they were invited, plus damages. In short, the case was a political hot potato the courts of Canada would not want to touch.
When proceedings began at 10:30 a.m., Associate Chief Justice William Parker encouraged the litigants to reconcile their differences elsewhere and adjourned the court until the afternoon when the case would be heard by three judges of the divisional court. This set the stage for further talks behind closed doors between Crown Counsel Binnie, Sinclair, and Rob Milen (Sinclair’s lawyer). With Prime Minister Trudeau and his justice minister maintaining in the House of Commons that it was up to the Métis to sort out their differences with the NCC, Binnie’s new offer was no different from MacGuigan’s the day before.
Sinclair’s response reflected the finality of the Métis decision. The fight was with Ottawa, not the NCC, which as far as the Métis were concerned could have its own seats to represent non-status Indians. Furthermore, there would be no compromise on the Métis demand for separate representation under the name of the Métis National Council.
Minutes before the court reconvened in the afternoon, Rob Milen telephoned national representative Clément Chartier, who had arrived in Ottawa to monitor negotiations with the Department of Justice as the lawsuit proceeded in Toronto. Moments before Milen’s call, Chartier had received news from the Federal-Provincial Relations Office that the Government of Canada had acceded to the Métis demand for separate representation. Milen rushed back to inform Sinclair, who was facing three judges of the Divisional Court. Justice R. F. Reid announced an adjournment of the case for a day with the consent of both parties. Armed with Ottawa’s agreement in principle, Sinclair left the courtroom with Milen to fly to Ottawa.
Awaiting them in Chartier’s room in downtown Ottawa’s Holiday Inn was a letter from Justice Minister MacGuigan stating that he had been authorized by the prime minister to invite the Métis National Council to the constitutional conference on the condition that it withdrew its court proceedings against him. As well, Chartier had been assured privately that the prime minister would agree to the reinclusion of a Métis land base in the first ministers’ agenda if and when the MNC raised the matter at the conference….
On the morning of Friday, March 11, Chartier signed the documents for an out-of-court agreement. At the request of the federal government, the Métis had remained silent on the accord until Friday despite a curious and importunate media. This curiosity would be further aroused when lawyers for the Métis plaintiffs appeared in Osgoode Hall at two in the afternoon, withdrew court proceedings against the prime minister, and directed the media to a press conference in Ottawa for details of the settlement.
At 3:00 p.m., Jim Sinclair and Clément Chartier appeared in the Parliamentary Press Theatre at the largest press conference ever held by the Métis. They emphasized that the Métis Nation had won what rightfully belonged to it and not at the expense of any other Aboriginal people.
Sinclair Takes on the Premiers
(The “Blow-Out” at the 1987 constitutional conference on the rights of Aboriginal peoples)
According to Jim Sinclair, the Métis, after their battle to gain entry into the constitutional talks, should be the last to leave the bargaining table. He was determined to keep all lines of communication open until the end. Sitting amid the MNC delegates was Saskatchewan’s former minister of intergovernmental affairs (and future premier), Roy Romanow, who had been invited by Sinclair to direct the MNC’s advisers. Romanow’s group was expected to monitor the conference proceedings from the MNC caucus room and undertake the liaison work with other delegations toward the development of a consensus proposal.
The opening remarks by other conference participants quickly brought to bear the polarization on self-government that Sinclair had feared. Aboriginal positions congealed around the unconditional justiciable right to self-government – now termed the “inherent” right – as quickly as the three westernmost provinces reaffirmed their opposition to even a “contingent” right with a binding commitment to negotiate self-government agreements. Sufficient support for the federal proposal—basically a repeat of its 1985 draft accord—was not there….
Premier Bill Vander Zalm of British Columbia, after praising Canadian Aboriginal soldiers who had participated in the liberation of his native Netherlands two years before his immigration to Canada in 1947, concluded his remarks by flatly stating, “My government recognizes that the Fathers of Confederation divided all powers to govern between the federal and provincial governments. My government cannot commit to self-government as proposed by the AFN or its entrenchment in the Constitution.”
Premier Grant Devine of Saskatchewan, citing heavy provincial expenditures on Aboriginal peoples, would go no further than his proposed 1985 Saskatchewan Accord (with its non-binding commitment to negotiate): “Through the contingent rights approach it seems to me our approach bridged the gap between our concern that we did not understand the meaning of self-government—and clearly Canadians do not today—and our desire to recognize the rights and aspirations of native people. … We do not believe it to be in the interest of Canadians to have those questions just holus bolus answered by the courts without having some involvement in the process.”….
By the time participants gathered at 1:30 p.m. on the second and final day of the conference before a live national TV audience, the conference had become an exercise in damage control. Announcing the failure of the in-camera morning session to produce a breakthrough, Prime Minister Mulroney lamented,
I genuinely regret that the draft amendment failed to generate the support required to make it a reality. One day we shall succeed, but this constitutional process has now come to an end. … If in my judgment a new meeting or conference would be helpful and productive, I shall not hesitate to call one. But let us not be under any illusions. There shall be a price to be paid for our failure. I don’t want anybody leaving this room or leaving this city today under any illusions about that.
Unfortunately, those called upon to pay the largest share of that price shall be those least equipped to pay it, namely the Aboriginal peoples who have paid an unfair share of that price for an unfair share of time. But the concept of self-government remains alive. It remains an ideal to which many us are committed.
If the prime minister was to deliver the obituary notice for the process, it fell on Georges Erasmus, chief spokesman for the AFN, to deliver its eulogy. In a quiet and dignified manner, backed by delegates from all four Aboriginal organizations standing around the grand chief in a rare show of Aboriginal solidarity, Erasmus explained most eloquently why the “contingent” right proposal was not acceptable: “Could we take that great leap of faith and actually encourage a statement in the Constitution that we had nothing until we were given something? The answer always was the same, Mr. Prime Minister. It was always clear. It was always unequivocal. It was virtually never.”
The prime minister then turned to the one politician in the hall who, perhaps more than any other, had come to Ottawa to make a deal. Jim Sinclair had kept his political feelers out to the end, reviving his “sunrise clause” proposal from the 1985 conference in a last-ditch effort to forge a consensus. Regardless of the strengths of a free-standing “inherent” right to self-government in the Constitution, Sinclair, who had personally borne the full brunt of racism for much of his life, did not trust the white judiciary as an arbiter of Aboriginal rights. He had come to make a political deal that could then be written into the Constitution, but what he had found, particularly in the stance of Bill Vander Zalm and Grant Devine, was a preconceived refusal to negotiate.
Then, to the amazement of the conference and the live television audience, Sinclair exploded. He turned on the BC premier, calling it shameful that as an immigrant from a country liberated from Nazi occupation by Canadian forces including large numbers of Aboriginal soldiers, he could rise to the premiership of one of Canada’s largest provinces in such a short time while refusing to “recognize the rights of our people here in this country of their origin.” He turned on Quebec, represented at the table by Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Gil Rémillard, and expressed the disappointment of the Métis that Quebec would not come to their aid at the constitutional table even though the Métis had fought and died for French-language rights in western Canada. According to Sinclair, instead of giving the Métis the kind of support they needed, Quebec had come to advance its own cause.
Then he turned on the premier who had held the balance of power at the last two conferences and had used that power to block the full implementation of the federal proposal, the premier of Sinclair’s own province. In response to Devine’s complaint about provincial spending on Natives relative to net farm income in Saskatchewan,]Sinclair, with the Mulroney government’s farm aid package in mind, declared to a shocked Devine, “At the same time, you came to the prime minister here, and he bought an election for you for $1 billion.” Referring to northern Saskatchewan, Sinclair continued, “We pay twice as much … for food as you would in the south. Yet for every bottle of wine and every bottle of whiskey that you send north of Prince Albert, you put a subsidy on that so the price of that wine is the same price in La Loche as it is in Regina. At the same time, there is no subsidy on the price of milk for our children and on the price of food for our people who are having a hard time in those communities with no jobs.” Referring to the lease of a vast tract of crown land to an American pulp and paper company by Devine’s government, Sinclair declared, “You ask for definitions when we talk about self-government. You gave them an open-ended agreement which gave them more land than all the reserves put together in Canada. You did not ask them for a definition. You gave them one year where an 800-page document came out with not one definition but 300 definitions. That is what you got from a big company that you gave a blank cheque to.”
The mortified expressions on the faces of Bill Vander Zalm and Grant Devine amid the thunderous applause of Aboriginal participants said it all. Jim Sinclair had set aside constitutional niceties and brought two of Canada’s premiers before a live national TV audience into the realm of brass-knuckle politics. In the firebrand tradition of prairie populists, Sinclair had declared the first ministers conference process to be a monumental failure and laid responsibility squarely at the feet of two of the premiers. Sinclair had provided the catharsis to end a five-year drama of mounting frustration and broken hopes of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.
In what was probably the most charged atmosphere in the conference centre’s history, Sinclair then brought the process to a close, concluding with a statement that, in the words of Liberal MP Keith Penner, “will never be forgotten in the annals of the history of this nation.”
I have worked hard over the years to bring justice to my people, to sit down with governments and make deals. I have pounded on doors. I have had many guys say no. I have troubles meeting with the Prime Minister and with the Premiers. Yet, we have struggled hard to try to make a deal. We have kept our end of the bargain. We struggled with our Aboriginal brothers as to what should go on the table.
One thing I want to say, as we leave this meeting: I am glad that we stuck together on a right that is truly right for our people, right for all of Canada, and right within international law throughout the world based on human rights alone. We have the right to self-government, to self-determination and land.
The people who are here are going to continue the struggle. This is not an end. It is only the beginning. I think our leadership has made a stand now. We break new roads for those who come in the future. Do not worry, Mr. Prime Minister and Premiers of the provinces; I may be gone, but our people will be back.”