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A new portfolio

Cross Examined
|Written By Janet Guttsman
A new portfolio
Photo: Sandra Strangemore

Kimberly Murray’s new job is, as she wryly points out, the fifth of 17 recommendations in the 2013 Iacobucci report on First Nations legal issues, and she actually asked the interview panel for assurances that she wasn’t being set up to fail.

But just days into her new position as Ontario’s first assistant deputy attorney general with responsibility for aboriginal issues, Murray is already brainstorming her strategic priorities and figuring out how her small team of 17 can best work with Ontario’s various ministries and departments. Her brief is to implement the report’s recommendations on bringing more aboriginals onto jury panels, a list that includes education programs for government, justice, and prison department officials; translation of key documents; and a string of possible changes to jury registration rules.

“There will be some desire to dump things into our office, and there will be some desire to kick things out of our office,” Murray says in an interview in a downtown Toronto office that she’s still arranging to suit her taste. A couple of the aboriginal pictures are not yet where she wants them to end up, and one of two woven dreamcatchers hang in a window, which Murray admits may — or may not — be against the building’s rules.

“We need to make sure we don’t get dumped things we shouldn’t get and that we are getting the things that should be in here. . . . We’ll have to work with court services on jury issues, with criminal law on Gladue, with the prison services, with child and family services. And I’ll be working with the other [assistant deputy attorneys general] in the senior management team.”

She adds: “I think my No. 1 personal goal is to make sure there are some roots in the unit, so it stays. A small unit is easy to get rid of. . . . I want to be able to be the office that people come to from the other ministries on aboriginal justice issues. And obviously, I want to make it easier for aboriginals to serve on a jury.”

In his 158-page report, entitled “First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries,” former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci described a justice system “in crisis” for aboriginals, particularly in Northern Ontario. “The problem that is the specific focus of this report — the underrepresentation of individuals living on reserves on Ontario’s jury roll — is a symptom of this crisis,” he wrote. “But an examination of that problem leads inexorably to a set of broader and systemic issues that are at the heart of the current dysfunctional relationship between Ontario’s justice system and aboriginal peoples in this province. It is these broad problems that must be tackled if we are to make any significant progress in dealing with the underrepresentation of First Nations individuals on juries.”

Murray, the child of a Mohawk father and an Irish mother, has spent a lot of time in positions that deal directly with that dysfunctional relationship, first with Toronto’s Aboriginal Legal Services and more recently in the gut-wrenching position of executive director at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has a five-year mandate to examine the legacy of the Indian Residential School System.

“A survivor said it best,” she says of the system that set up the schools. “He said that Canada lost its moral compass. . . . They wanted to destroy the culture, destroy the language, and assimilate indigenous people. That was the goal. It wasn’t about education, it was about destroying indigenous cultures in Canada.”

The commission was scheduled to report back at the end of May, and Murray delayed the start date of her Ontario job to help finalize the documents that were to be released. “One of the greatest things that I take out of it is that they failed,” she says. “There’s a lot of damage, and it’s going to take a lot of time to repair that damage, but . . . they failed. It goes to show the strength of the community.”

Murray, who is 49, grew up in Quebec. She studied at Carleton and Western universities before taking her law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she admits she often played Scrabble in the hallways rather than attending large, boring lectures. “I only had enough money to apply to one law school,” she says. “I applied to Osgoode. I picked it because it had the biggest first-year class, and I thought I had the best chance of getting in.”

Murray worked part-time to pay her way through Osgoode, and spent one term working at the Parkdale Community Legal Services clinic in downtown Toronto. “It was the highlight of my law school career,” she says, describing the clinic’s family division as a “catch-all” that dealt with police complaints, compensation and victim support, as well as family issues. “I found in law school there were not a lot of courses that interested me — I wasn’t interested in business and that kind of stuff,” she says. “There was one aboriginal rights course which I was not able to take because it was on a day that I had to work.”

Osgoode now offers an intensive program in aboriginal lands, resources, and governments, a program that did not exist when Murray was a student. But the current generations of new lawyers face other problems in following their dreams, she says. “I look at the tuition fees in law school and they are so high . . . I don’t know how students do it. People end up taking jobs that they don’t necessarily want because they need the money to pay off their student loans. They might be practising law in an area that’s not necessarily their passion.

“I’ve pulled people out of jobs they don’t want. You get used to the salary and you’ve got to get out of those jobs early on, or your path is created for you.”

Murray returned to Osgoode after graduation to work on a master’s in constitutional law. She completed the coursework, but went on maternity leave before writing her thesis. “I just never finished it,” she says. “I did all the courses and I never finished the thesis. Maybe when my kids go off to university. Maybe when my dog grows up and I have more time to myself.”


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