Senator Murray Sinclair joins Manitoba law firm in mentorship role

Cochrane Saxberg widens footprint nationally, wants to learn from former Indigenous judge

Senator Murray Sinclair joins Manitoba law firm in mentorship role
Senator Murray Sinclair joins Manitoba Indigenous law firm Cochrane Saxberg, founded by Harold Cochrane.

It’s been a long time since Senator Murray Sinclair was a junior lawyer in the early 1980s, fighting for the rights of Indigenous people. And through his career, he’s experienced a lot of firsts – first Indigenous provincial court judge in Manitoba, first Indigenous judge with Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench, first First Nations member from Manitoba to be appointed to the Senate.

But 40 years after starting out as a lawyer, Sinclair is heading back in the trenches of the law, joining Manitoba-based Indigenous law firm Cochrane Saxberg.

“I’ve been saying to other people that having Murray Sinclair join our firm is like Wayne Gretzky joining your hockey team,” says Harold (Sonny) Cochrane, the firm’s founding partner. “For many people in the Indigenous community, he’s a hero, a beacon of hope for us.”

Sinclair is more self-effacing, saying he decided to join the firm (while keeping his Senate seat) because he “really wants to make a direct ground-level contribution daily for those who are working nose-to-nose with Indigenous people that are caught up in the justice system.”

Born in 1951 near Selkirk, north of Winnipeg, Sinclair has seen the injustices Indigenous people have endured in Canada. The area he grew up in was once known as the St. Peter’s Indian Reserve, until 1907, when most of its Ojibwa and Cree people were illegally forced to relocate about 170 kilometres to the northwest, to what is now the Peguis First Nation. His father and grandmother were survivors of residential schools. His mother died when he was an infant and he was raised by his grandparents.

This background is among the reasons why he wants to help Indigenous lawyers “come to terms with their identity, come to terms with the fact that as Indigenous people, they're working in a justice system that still historically is not quite there yet when it comes to delivering true justice to indigenous people.

“I don't want Indigenous lawyers graduating from law school saying ‘I will never go to court because I hate the court system,’ or ‘I don't like judges,’ or ‘I don’t like prosecutors’ or ‘I don't like child welfare worker lawyers.’ I want them to go to court feeling like they're on equal footing, and that they can argue a case from their perspective as Indigenous lawyers with Indigenous clients.”

Cochrane Saxberg is a litigation, child protection, employment, and labour, corporate and Indigenous advocacy law firm. After opening its doors in 2017, the firm has tackled a wide variety of cases, from settlement agreements between First Nations and Canada to successfully representing a client before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal regarding racial harassment in the workplace.

Eleven of the firm's 21 lawyers are Indigenous, including three of the firm’s five partners, which both Cochrane says make it uniquely positioned to take on a variety of cases related to Indigenous issues, not only in Manitoba but nationally as well.

“We have a unique perspective that we bring to the practice of Indigenous law,” says Cochrane, who grew up in Fish River Cree Nation about 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg. “We do that through having a team of lawyers that understand these issues firsthand because many of us have lived with these issues, or our families have lived them.”

Cochrane, with a career that spans 25 years and once saw him as the only First Nation lawyer in private practice in Manitoba, says Cochrane Saxberg lawyers will be able to gain valuable knowledge from Sinclair’s decades of legal experience. That experience includes being Co-Commissioner of Manitoba’s Public Inquiry into the Administration of Justice and Aboriginal People (known as the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry) while still Associate Chief Justice of the Provincial Court of Manitoba.

The Commission, which started sitting in 1988 and produced its report in 1991, made more than 300 recommendations s covering not only the mechanism of justice but also treaty relations, child welfare and resource rights.

Later, after he was appointed a Court of Queen’s Bench judge in 2001, Sinclair was asked to chair Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which provided residential school survivors an opportunity to share their experiences and how it impacted them. It was a role he initially declined. But Sinclair reconsidered, and in 2009, he was appointed as the Commission’s Chair, and the TRC completed its report in 2015, with 94 “calls to action.”

After the TRC, Sinclair announced he was retiring from the court and public life, but Manitoba’s Indigenous community nominated him for an appointment to the Senate. He became a Senator in 2016 and has been active with the Independent Senators Group, sitting on several its committees.

 But Sinclair admits the lure of returning to being a practising lawyer is compelling, not only to work with young Indigenous lawyers but to help non-Indigenous lawyers understand legal issues from an Aboriginal perspective.

“I want lawyers to be able to understand when we talk about the role of elders, oral history, and the traditional principles behind Indigenous child-rearing, justice and property rights, hunting rights and hunting practices,” he says. “What should that law look like? Not necessarily under the Indian Act, but in a way that is consistent with the Constitution.”

He adds that Cochrane Saxberg's partners want to place themselves as one of the leading Indigenous law firms in Canada. “In order to do that, its lawyers have to be able to articulate Indigenous law and show how Indigenous law can be utilized to help answer some of the very thorny legal questions that we have to face.”

As to the question of whether young Indigenous lawyers should consider careers with government or large corporate firms that don’t much Indigenous representation, both Sinclair and Cochrane say it’s one that those starting their careers struggle with.

“They get offers to become Crown prosecutors, for example, and they ask me about it,” Sinclair says.

 “My answer to them is always to do whatever you think you're capable of doing. But don't be afraid of taking on a position, which historically has not been a positive position when it comes to Indigenous people, instead change the way those positions function, because will not occur until people like you go in there and change it.”

Adds Cochrane: If they ask for my advice, I say, yes, work for government, work for institutions, work for corporations. Get your experience and bring forward the perspective of Indigenous.

“But don’t take short cuts. Make sure you cut your teeth the right way and work in the trenches because if you take the time to do that, that will serve you in the long run.”

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