The Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair
Have you ever had a moment so perfect you could not believe it? I had one when I served as University Orator honouring the Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair.
I study performance. I explore how top performers do what they do best. Being assigned to speak about Murray Sinclair provided me with two years in which I was privileged to study Mizanay Gheezhik (Sinclair’s Ojibway name), and attempt to capture something of who he is, and what he has done. Yes, he is a top performer, but so much more. I was in Ottawa when then Justice Sinclair delivered the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. I joined the group walking with him through the city the day before the official presentation. The next day, I stood outside while he presented the report.
During the two years I spent preparing the citation below, I leaned on a lot of friends. Friends helped talk me through my fear of meeting Sinclair. I was afraid I would make a fool of myself. How should I address him? How could I show him the respect he deserves? I got good advice, but did not need it. When I met him, he was one of the most joyful, generous, and engaging people you can imagine. We talked, and joked, and I forgot to worry. Looking back, I realize it was a kind of selfishness that made me want to tell him how much I love and respect him. What I really needed to do was just show up.
But there is more to my perfect moment. I was newly appointed to the Orator role, so I was mentored by our Senior Orator, Aritha van Herk. Van Herk is one of our country’s most beloved writers, one of its most influential academics, and one of the best creative writing teachers in the world. While I worked on what I thought might be the most important piece I would ever write, I found myself in the enviable position of getting notes from Aritha van Herk. I expected it would be of great help, but was not prepared for how wonderful it was. Another top performer, who is so much more than what she has done.
Now, to the moment itself. Standing on the stage in front of our graduating students, and their family and friends, I was introduced by President Elizabeth Canon. President Canon is someone whom I hold in the highest esteem. She is known around the world for work in Engineering, for her research, and for her role as an industry and academic leader in Canada. One time a few years ago I invited her to one of my classes. We expected she might give us a few inspiring words, but instead she jumped right in with the students and learned about each of them and their work. There were no cameras, no reporters, just a scholar who clearly loved working with students. I remember thinking in the first few minutes, “damn, she’s a really good teacher.”
Once I read the citation, I was required to introduce the honouree to our chancellor. The University of Calgary’s Chancellor is Robert (Bob) Thirsk. Astronaut Bob Thirsk. Holder of the Canadian record for longest time in space Robert Thirsk. Engineer, Scientist, and Medical Doctor Robert Thirsk. The guy who learned Russian so he could fly to the international space station aboard a Soyuz rocket Robert Thirsk. Did I mention he is an astronaut!?! I have to admit I feel somewhat guilty about Chancellor Thirsk, because I have met him on a number of occasions and every time I have a voice in my head that keeps saying, “this guy’s been in space.” I have no expectation of overcoming this tick.
So, that was a pretty good moment. Better than perfect.
As I look back, here is what I learned. Each of the people I mentioned have achieved so much it is impossible to imagine ourselves measuring up. As someone who studies performance, these four are as good as it gets. Each has distinguished themselves in many ways, but they share one thing in common. They are nice. We do not really value niceness much these days, but in my experience, that is the common denominator with top achievers. Make of it what you will, but I have never met a top performer who is not filled with joy.
Anyway, here is the citation I wrote and got to read that day:
The giving of names is a powerful practice found in all times and places. Names tell the story of our walk on this sacred ground, the ground of Treaty 7, of Canada, and of Turtle Island. To name this person we say: “The Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair.” To name this person we say in Ojibway: “Mizanay Gheezhik,” meaning, “the one who speaks of pictures in the sky.” But this honouree has travelled with many names: athlete of the year, valedictorian, cadet, lawyer, justice, senator, doctor, husband, father, friend, elder… and senator. To name the place where we honour him we say, “The University of Calgary.” To name this place we say: “Mo shùile togam suas,” in Gaelic, “I will lift up mine eyes.” And today we lift up our eyes to the one who speaks of pictures in the sky.
We practice here an ancient ritual, cataloguing the journey the recipient has walked. Murray Sinclair, Mizanay Gheezhik, has walked a path over such great distances, and in so many directions, we could speak for days.
Consider the eyes and feet of this man. His eyes have shared pictures from the sky: of justice, reconciliation, of our past, present, and future. His feet, when young, moved so swiftly he left us behind, then slowed so we could join, walking the land, and walking our shared and deeply complicated history. He has walked with others in honour of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which his eyes oversaw. And walking together with those hard truths, he again ventured ahead, delivering a Report filled with stories that needed to be told, heard, and honoured. Most memorably, he said, "Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. There are no shortcuts."
Eminent Chancellor, I present to you Mizanay Gheezhik, The Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair, whose work in the study and practice of law has lifted up the lives of neglected children, of those whose voices are unheard, and of the very conscience of this land and its people. His professional attributes are of the highest order, but are outpaced by a lifetime of contributions to social justice, built from his ability to see pictures in the sky, and the fortitude needed to walk the hard road in a quest for genuine change. He arrives here today, a man who has taken no shortcuts. On behalf of the Senate, and the University of Calgary, I invite you to invest him with the degree Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
Note: the image is from Chancellor Thirsk’s blog: http://robertthirsk.ca/2017/06/08/powerful-words-about-a-powerful-and-great-man-the-honourable-dr-murray-sinclair