Niigaan Sinclair enjoys teaching to anybody he can and anybody who will listen to what he has to say. From Peguis First Nation, but grew up in Selkirk, Manitoba, Sinclair currently works as a professor at the University of Manitoba in the Department of Native Studies but was a high school teacher previously.
Sinclair says he never really planned on being a teacher but just sort of fell into the profession, first working with young Indigenous students in Selkirk then got a job offer to teach drama and English at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, where he also started doing native studies there.
“I really started speaking because I would speak about what it was like growing up and going to pow-wows and the politics and the issues around the treaties and so on,” said Sinclair.
After he began teaching about his knowledge about Indigenous culture, he started writing and decided he wanted to become a graduate student and kept going, becoming a professor.
And if teaching at the University of Manitoba wasn’t enough, Sinclair has found that he enjoys teaching the public as well, writing two columns a week for the Winnipeg Free Press, as well as editorials and interviews for them.
“Whenever somebody has an Indigenous themed article, they usually call me and I connect them up with members of the community and so I do that as well,” said Sinclair.
What motivates him to do the work that he does is essentially how Indigenous history is woven into every fabric of Canada, whether that’s teaching non-Indigenous people that they were influenced by Indigenous people or teaching Indigenous people the history and culture is “extremely important and is the foundation for Canada.”
“From multiculturalism policy, to the laws of the nation, to even the ways in which we have the social welfare fabric, like the ways welfare operates in our society is very much an Indigenous principle. You don’t see that anywhere else in the world,” said Sinclair.
While he has become an incredible teacher and individual throughout the years, he had a different education than many to get where he is.
Sinclair grew up with a father who was very traditional and was a residential school survivor “who had to re-find his way to the lodge.” And while Sinclair was exposed to tradition, he also grew up in the church as well because his biological mother is French and has strong catholic roots in her family.
“The way I describe it is I would spend July going to ceremonies and on the pow-wow trail and then August I’d be in Bible camp.”
Sinclair was conflicted growing up, and was angry for a long time but went to counseling to help him out. He even says he didn’t even like school and wasn’t good at it, and only went because he loved sports.
His love for sports eventually got him a soccer scholarship at Trent University, and when he graduated he was the MVP on his hockey and soccer team.
He dropped out of university after he broke his leg and went travelling around the world and found himself at a university in Sri Lanka.
He was asked to speak about his experience as an Indigenous person and found there was 300 people waiting because they didn’t believe Indigenous people existed anymore.
So when he came back he had a whole new idea and mission of what he wanted to do in life. So he got his education degree, went on to do his graduate work, and got a graduate scholarship at the University of British Columbia, which eventually lead him to where he is now.
Sinclair says one of the biggest obstacles he’s faced throughout his journey is the feeling of shame and thinking he’s not good enough, and attributes it to many negative things Indigenous people are taught growing up through media and society. He says it’s something he still faces today.
“I think shame is something that you turn the volume down and if you can control the volume then, and it takes some help. I’ve had some counseling for that. I’ve also had some support,” said Sinclair.
As a message to youth, Sinclair says they are needed “so badly,” and mentions, for many people in Winnipeg, he was the “only Indigenous professional they ever saw.”
He’s happy to see that’s changing now and there’s many more “coming up,” and acknowledges there are some who will be the first in their family to do something.
“If you’re able to then spend that little bit of energy left to try to make this world a better place and to help make the path easier for those who are coming, you will leave a legacy that you don’t even know about.”
Special thanks to Jasmine Kabatay for authoring this blog post.
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