The Current·Q&A

Reconciliation work on residential schools must be done without 'any further harm,' says special interlocutor

Kimberly Murray, the federal government's new special interlocutor, explains how she hopes to help Indigenous communities in their healing process.

Kimberly Murray says work must be done now, or problems will linger for years

Kimberly Murray is the newly appointed special interlocutor tasked with co-ordinating the government's response to the unmarked graves identified at a number of former residential school sites. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

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The new special interlocutor tasked with helping Indigenous communities navigate the legacy of unmarked graves at residential schools says "it's really important that we get it right this time."

"We don't want to be having this conversation in 10 more years again, right?" said Kimberley Murray, who previously served as the executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Justice Minister David Lametti announced Murray's appointment last week. A Mohawk woman originally from Kanehsatake in Quebec, Murray has spent the past year overseeing an investigation into deaths at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School near Brantford, Ont.

Murray spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway about the task ahead. Here is part of their conversation.

Can you just briefly describe, as you understand it, what your role entails?

First and foremost, it's to continue the conversation with survivors and First Nation, Inuit and Métis leaders about the supports that they need to start this work, or continue the work that they may have already started in relation to finding the missing children and unmarked burials.

And secondly, I've been asked by the Department of Justice and Minister Lametti to do a review of existing federal-provincial-territorial laws in relation to protecting these sacred grounds. We currently don't have a federal legislation in place to protect these grounds, and so my mandate is to make a recommendation on what that could look like. 

Why did you accept the role?

I worked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was quite involved in the work that was being done by the TRC on finding the missing children. And so I really felt it was a continuation of that work that we started many years ago. 

I think it's really important that the whole truth come out, and that we give the voice to communities and survivors. 

WATCH | Kimberly Murray will serve as fed. govt's special interlocutor

Interlocutor to co-ordinate government response to residential school unmarked graves

2 months ago
Duration 6:55
Kimberly Murray will serve as special interlocutor to co-ordinate the government's response to unmarked graves that have been identified at a number of former residential school sites.

This is deeply emotional work that has produced generations of trauma ... over the course of many, many, many years. How is that going to inform how you approach the work that you're doing?

Well, it's absolutely going to be the basis: understanding that there is this trauma, and having to be mindful of that as I embark on the work and go across the country and speak to communities.

I want to ensure that the Office of the Special Interlocutor doesn't do any more harm, and that we're here to help. So if people don't want to speak to us, then they don't need to speak to us. We want to open the doors that they need opened, and support them in whatever actions they need. 

So it will be very difficult. But I would say this: we don't want to be having this conversation in 10 more years, again. Right? So it's really important that we get it right this time. We can't pass this trauma, and this legacy and this work on to another generation [of] intergenerational survivors. The survivors that are with us today want it done, and we owe it to them to get this work done now in a good way that doesn't do any further harm. 

A memorial honouring the children who died at residential schools is seen on the steps of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building in 2021. (Chris Ross)

You were most recently the executive lead of the Secretariat of the Six Nations of the Grand River, and were working there looking at unmarked burials at the Mohawk Institute. What did you learn there that is going to help you in the work that you're doing now? Because that was, and it remains, a complicated situation.

I learned a lot of things… [For] someone like me who was working at the TRC and was involved in writing the final report, there's still so much more that we learn as we have these conversations with survivors and really look at the records. 

One thing we learned is that there's absolutely, absolutely way more documents that exist, that are out there, that could help communities determine who the children were that were in the schools, and ... how many may have died.

We know that Canada didn't provide all the records to the TRC. We know that the church entities didn't provide the records. But we also learned at the Mohawk Institute, so many other institutions are housing records that can be helpful. The city of Brantford, [Ont.,] opened up their archives to the Survivors Secretariat.

The provincial government has many, many different categories of records that might be helpful. Police services may have records. So it's far more complex than we originally had thought. 

And then I would also say, when you ask about what we learned, I don't think the community really had a full understanding of the extent of the grounds that were involved with the Mohawk Institute. 

What do you mean?

Over 600 acres of land have to be searched.… When you think about the Indian residential school, you think about the land that the actual building is currently standing on. But there were all these farms that the kids were required to farm. And then the connections between other lands, like the Mohawk chapel and then, you know, the old Indian hospital. 

And we see that same connection across the country with other Indian residential schools. The lands are going to be more than just where the building may have stood. And so that makes it a much bigger problem for communities when they're setting up to do these ground searches. 

WATCH | Murray discusses her role on CBC's Power & Politics

Special interlocutor named to oversee unmarked graves at former residential schools

2 months ago
Duration 7:17
Kimberly Murray, who was appointed as special interlocutor to do work on unmarked burial sites, joins Power & Politics to discuss her new role.

First Nations obviously do not speak in a uniform voice. There are individual communities with individual needs and wishes and wants. What is your sense as to how much variation there is among communities as to how to handle these sites?

You know, I don't think I can answer that question today — on day two of my mandate, Matt. But I do understand and appreciate that, as you said, each community will want to ... approach things differently. We do know that within Indigenous law and Indigenous customs and cultures, there may also be conflicting protocols that need to be followed.

It's really important that we go back to our Indigenous ways and bring in the nation-to-nation conversations that need to happen among communities about how to resolve differences in protocols and customs.

You know, to give an example, the question of: do the children get exhumed and repatriated to their home communities? There's differing views about that among communities and among elders and survivors. And so as we have these big conversations with churches and government over records and support, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have to have those internal conversations with each other about how to approach this. 

I mean, it sounds obvious, but in many ways that speaks to how important it is that these discussions are community-led, that it does not come from any top-down [source].

Absolutely. [That's] very, very important that it's survivor-led and community-led. Or as I said, we'll be having this conversation all over again in years ahead. 

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC Politics. Produced by Brianna Gosse. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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