Courtesy of the NFB

TIFF 2021: Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair Review

One Indigenous icon pays tribute to another

4 mins read

Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair
(Canada, 29 min.)
Dir. Alanis Obomsawin
Programme: Celebrating Alanis


“Children are inherently the battleground for reconciliation,” says Senator Murray Sinclair. The distinguished Senator reflects upon his historic role as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Alanis Obomsawin’s short documentary Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair. The film pays tribute to a leader tasked with the extraordinary mission of repairing generations of wounds, and it’s a privilege to witness two of the most significant figures in Canada’s course to reconciliation share their message in one film.

Obomsawin, ever the modest filmmaker, might have considered using an exclamation mark to close the film’s title à la Miss Sharon Jones! to emphasize further the honour that the Senator rightly deserves. This portrait comes at the right moment in Canada’s ongoing reckoning with the reality of the residential schools and the nation’s colonial past. Sinclair’s speech in the film comes from his receipt of the 2016 WFM-Canada World Peace Award. The five-year gap between the events of the film and the documentary’s release emphasize the need for Canadians to understand his work and carry it forward. The healing is only beginning.

Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair weaves haunting photographs that depict Indigenous children at residential school throughout the subject’s address. These powerful still images punctuate the Senator’s words as he notes instances of abuse that can be extrapolated to over 100,000 cases of physical and sexual assault. The scars both psychological and emotional are incalculable.

To illustrate the latter points, Obomsawin offers devastating testimony provided by residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. These are painful testimonials, but there’s a palpable sense of catharsis as the survivors unburden themselves by releasing the memories they’ve carried with them for decades. Particularly compelling are the words of Paul Voudrach, also known by the forced alias of “Number 42.” Obomsawin inserts Voudrach’s testimony directly at the centre of the documentary and returns to it at the end. She finds in the anguished survivor a compelling account that speaks to the healing power of the Commission.

However, Sinclair’s remarks do not speak from a place of anger—although there’s understated rage laced within his eloquent words—and he instead addresses the audience with a message of hope that draws upon the failures of past generations to learn from their mistakes. As Sinclair synthesizes the complicated past to help the audience make sense of the present, his speech encapsulates much of what Obomsawin has also been confronting in her most recent body of work. The task of reconciliation is unduly burdened upon children, but they offer the greatest hope for achieving it. The message of peace within this film should help guide us all forward.

Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and screens at imagineNATIVE.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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