Healing journey leads to return

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo Gloria Murdock-Smith, who grew up in poverty in the West Channel, has returned to Hay River after many years away to become the town's senior administrative officer.

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo
Gloria Murdock-Smith, who grew up in poverty in the West Channel, has returned to Hay River after many years away to become the town’s senior administrative officer.

A woman who grew up in poverty and a challenging family situation in Hay River has returned more than three decades later to become town manager.

That is the inspiring story of Gloria Murdock-Smith, who started her new job as senior administrative officer (SAO) with the Town of Hay River on Sept. 12.

The coming full circle aspect of her new role is one reason she applied for the job.

“Six weeks ago when I saw the ad, I contemplated, ‘Wow, what if I came back home?’ she said, noting she hadn’t been here for 34 years, except for a brief visit, after living in the West Channel for about 22 years.

“It’s coming back and healing,” she said. “That’s what I am trying to lead here. I’m trying to demonstrate that we should all take responsibility for our lives, and that’s what I’m doing with mine.”

Plus, she also hopes to give back to the community.

“I want to tell the story so I benefit young women that are struggling like I did, young girls that are struggling like I did with an alcoholism upbringing, poverty, all that stuff,” she said. “So those are the personal reasons I came back.”

Murdock-Smith was a toddler when her family moved to Hay River from Fisher River Cree Nation in Manitoba to fish on Great Slave Lake.

In the West Channel, the family lived near the old fire hall in a three-room house, which she describes as a shack, crowded with 14 people – parents, children and uncles, some with alcohol problems.

“Is it amazing that I survived? It’s amazing,” she said, asking and answering her own question.

Murdock-Smith said psychologists call children like she was the resilient kids.

“I was a straight and narrow resilient kid,” she said, noting that some other members of her family did not fare so well in life.

Despite being a resilient child, she at first did not escape the path on which her early life placed her.

“I was married at 16 and the reason being is you want to get the heck out of Dodge,” she said. “You want to get out of this crazy home. That’s crazy, isn’t it? Even when I say it in this day and age, it was so common back then.”

All that was expected of her was to be a wife and have children, she said, adding she married a Saskatchewan fisherman, who had a problem with alcohol just like some members of her family, and she had two children before the marriage ended.

Although she is just 57, Murdock-Smith has a son who is 41 and a daughter who is 36, and five grandchildren.

After leaving Hay River at 24 with a Grade 9 education, Murdock-Smith and her husband moved to Pine Point for a couple of years, where she worked menial jobs.

“I knew I could not do that for the rest of my life,” she said. “I knew that.”

By her mid-20s, she was in Winnipeg and a single parent, and working the midnight shift at a plastics factory.

It was then that someone suggested she should go to university.

“And I said, ‘What? What is that?'” she recalled. “That word was not even uttered in my family.”

However, after upgrading her English to a Grade 10 level, she entered the University of Manitoba in her mid-20s as a mature student and earned a bachelor’s degree majoring in psychology and minoring in native studies.

Later, she earned a master’s degree at Royal Roads University in British Columbia in conflict resolution and management.

There followed a varied career, beginning as a child welfare advisor with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and continuing with executive director, senior management or CEO positions with organizations in Ottawa, Alberta, Vancouver and Regina.

That included being CEO of a First Nations health authority and CEO of an aboriginal village near Prince Rupert, B.C.

Murdock-Smith said she has managed organizations with up to 100 staff members.

Mayor Brad Mapes welcomed her as Hay River’s new SAO.

“I think it’s amazing for us to get Gloria,” he said. “One of the things is that you want a senior administrative officer or any other employee to kind of get that community buy-in and obviously she’s got that community buy-in. She’s wanting to come back to her roots and make a difference and showcase her skills, and also basically give the opportunity for others to see what you can do.”

Murdock-Smith said she has returned to Hay River not for her own ego but to be an inspiration for young people who are struggling and as part of her own healing.

“It’s a personal journey. It’s a healing journey always,” she said. “So it’s about me. It’s about me and helping people.”

She wants to show people, especially young aboriginal women, that they can break the cycle of poverty and don’t have to live the life that might be expected of them.

“My community is aboriginal, poor and female, and so that community struggles today and will continue,” she said. “And so I am a story that says you can do it. You can do it and let’s take the steps. You can do anything you want. Nobody told me that when I was growing up.”

–Paul Bickford