The first discovery last year of suspected unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school was not a surprise for Kimberly Murray exactly, so much as evidence of something long feared.
“We always knew there were more deaths,” she says.
As the former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Murray oversaw research that she says just scratched the surface of a concern that has since exploded into the public consciousness — that the property of many of the schools attended by Indigenous students are dotted with unmarked burials.
Now Murray, a member of Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation and Ontario’s first assistant deputy attorney general for Aboriginal justice, has been tasked with a new job that will give new shape to the problem, provide more protection for these sites in future and, it is hoped, provide another way for survivors to tell their stories.
It’s been a year since the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the discovery of as many as 215 possible grave sites, news which has kicked off a flurry of discoveries at former schools across the country. But the past 12 months have also brought to light what Murray says is a legal quagmire that has left many in First Nations communities unclear about how these sites might be studied and protected in the future.
“Right now, we have no federal legislation to protect these grounds. So right now, we’re relying on piecemeal provincial legislation. We have nothing, for example, to purchase back lands that might be privately held right now to return to First Nations.
“You know, we don’t want people just building swimming pools on top of buried kids.”
Murray’s new role is known as Canada’s independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves, a position that has come with a budget of $10.4 million over two years and a sprawling mandate to meet with survivors and families community leaders to figure out the key issues with identifying graves and work toward a new legal framework, or laws, that will protect them in the future.
Reached by phone on the week the new job begins, Murray says she’s in the process of hiring an executive director and a small support staff in Ontario, in addition to people across the country to help with regional engagement. Two years from now, she’ll present a final report of recommendations for federal laws and regulations, based on her meetings with people across the country.
When she was first approached for the job, Murray says, it was most important to her that this was work that the communities wanted, and not just something being imposed by the federal government, which is the feedback she’s gotten so far.
“It’s really important to listen and to hear from communities, not coming in with any sort of preset idea or ideas are about what needs to change,” she says, pointing out that there are more than 100 former residential-school sites across the country, representing a range of traditions and beliefs.
There will be different ideas about how to respectfully protect the graves, while broaching topics such as excavation and repatriation. More than half of the nearby communities have yet to ask the federal government for help in looking for unmarked graves, suggesting some communities aren’t interested or ready yet, she says.
It’s something she has experienced first-hand, having previously helped lead an investigation into deaths at the Mohawk Institute residential school. It was one of the country’s longest-running schools of its kind, operating first as a day school in 1928 and closing almost a century and a half later in Brantford, Ont.
The probe over the last year was an exercise in gathering records — “There were way more records out there in places I never even imagined,” she says — from the provincial government, municipal archives and museum collections. Despite assurances from the Anglican Church that all of its records had been disclosed, Murray says they still turned up more.
It was an education in getting different parts of the community involved, she says, but also in how unique each community’s search will be.
Each school was different, and associated sites might include kids from multiple communities or, such as in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, be located amongst graves from the wider community. Some groups might want to exacate, some might not want to search for graves at all.
“I’m not naive. Their issues are different than issues that are happening in British Columbia, and those are different than the issues that are happening in Saskatchewan, or in the Northwest Territories. I’m really open to hearing about the barriers and whatever challenges communities are facing.”
In the reckoning over the past year, Murray sees the foundation that the TRC put in place a decade ago. The events the commission held across the country got bigger each time, with more and more non-Indigenous people joining in as time went on.
She points out that thousands of the kids who came out to the education days would be in their early 20s now, and would have taken with them into young adulthood a better understanding of residential schools than generations before them. The discovery of possible graves were a gut punch to many in the country, but it landed at a time when young people are taught about history in ways they weren’t before.
“Like the TRC said, from your head to your heart,” she says. “But it’s a different baseline of understanding than when the TRC started. And so I think that that’s really informing the support from Canadians around this.”
Because of her work with the TRC, Murray says she knows survivors across the country, which will help guide her new work. But she’s also had time to reflect on how much longer residential-school survivors have been grappling with this history, and what it means for them to be part of this process.
“One of the things I always reflected on at the TRC was that the survivors have lived with this their whole life,” she says. “And often, people are so protective of them that they bubble-wrap them, and that’s not what they want.
“You know, sometimes when we protect them too much, then they feel like they’re being silenced. The survivors, for example, that I’ve just worked with over the last year, they say it’s their turn for their voices to be heard. They haven’t felt heard yet.”
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A legacy of sorrow, a duty of care: Canada’s new pointperson on missing Indigenous children and unmarked graves talks about what comes next