By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
BRANTFORD—Members of the media were given a behind the scenes look at a restoration project underway at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, formerly known as the Mohawk Institute Residential School to the scores of Indigenous children who were sent there between 1831 to 1970.
The site is being restored to the conditions it existed in at the time it was still a residential school. Dubbed the ‘Save The Evidence’ campaign, once complete it will be utilized as an interactive educational space where people can come and learn through first-hand experience what life was like inside the former residential school.
“We are so grateful and appreciative of the national response we’ve had to residential schools and being able to share the stories and share this truth, this part of history, and do it in a way that is accurate and true,” said Janis Monture, Executive Director of the Woodland Cultural Centre.
According to Monture, a typical day for a student at the Mohawk Institute Residential School started by 6 a.m. with morning chores. Before being put back to bed by 8 p.m., the day would include about two hours of class time when classes occurred, three meals, and other breaktimes between a schedule of chores. She added, “Sometimes near the end they had schooling more like a typical school day, but certainly chores and manual labour was the mainstay for them.”
From 1828 to 1885, most of the children at the Mohawk Institute came from Six Nations. After that time the school enrolled students from all over southwestern Ontario and northern Ontario, northern Quebec, and by the 1950s they started to extend even farther, with students coming from the Northwest Territories.
Monture spoke of a survivor’s story from this period: “At this time in the late 1950s, early 1960s, they had more class time. She remembers having a French class for the Quebec students, but they didn’t speak French, they spoke Cree.”
Monture says that the Confederacy on Six Nations at that time took it upon themselves to build schools in the community, stopping agents from taking children out of the community.
In current day, Monture said efforts are underway to speak to as many residential school survivors as possible as part of the restoration and rehabilitation process, to create a tapestry of stories that give insight into life within the schools.
Woodland Cultural Centre also has a library of literature and artistic works from Indigenous writers and artists, along with taking a vital role in preserving Native languages that were in danger of being lost.
The project to document and preserve those languages began in the 1980s: “At that time, language in our community on Six Nations was at a crisis. We were losing fluent speakers at an alarming rate, and not a lot of language resources, recordings, or anything written was happening in the community on the larger scale.”
On restoring the Woodland Cultural Centre site back to its Mohawk Institute heritage, Monture said the process began in 2013 with a six-month consultation at Six Nations, including in-person information sessions, online surveys, and comment cards distributed through the community: “Through all of those efforts, it was 96% in favour of keeping the building.”
The first phase focused on repairing the roof, completed in 2017. Phase 2 focused on the infrastructure of the building, including waterproofing, new windows, electrical, plumbing, and restoring as many original elements as possible, including refinished wooden floors and plastered walls. This phase was completed in 2019, with Phase 3 set to focus on accessibility and the installation of heritage windows. The final phase will focus on turning the restored building into an interactive educational experience, with survivors helping to determine what elements will be highlighted in the finished exhibit.
“We’re really only wanting to hear from those who want to share their story, because we don’t want to cause them any more stress or harm,” said Monture. “We’re doing this with good intentions to keep these stories so that we can keep educating others about what happened at these schools.”
There are eight core survivors who work with Monture and her team, and a list of others who have provided their contact information through survivor gatherings held in 2018 and 2019 for when things move forward.
As an idea of how the tour would progress, Monture explained, “(Visitors) would watch a 10-minute orientation film that would give a context…. The group would then start through the front doors of the school where they would be guided through a narrative storyline as told from a child who attended the school’s perspective. The reason it will be told from a child’s perspective is that as an adult you have some preconceptions. The idea is that the tour would take you from the first floor, up to the second floor, and finishing in the basement. As you come out, you would come out through this space where you are asked the question, ‘Is Canada ready for moving forward, what are the steps to moving forward?’”
Monture noted that the subject matter will be approached differently based on the age of the audience in attendance.
Recently, Chief Mark Hill of the Six Nations Elected Band Council sent an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demanding funding to conduct a thorough investigation of the grounds surrounding the former Mohawk Institute, using ground piercing radar technology to search the site for any potential mass grave sites like the one recently unearthed near a similar residential school in Kamloops, BC, where the remains of 215 children were found. Additional bodies have been found at other schools since.
“We have heard testimonials from survivors for many years that there were deaths, that there were babies born out of these schools. We do anticipate that yes, there are going to be, most likely,” said Monture, on whether she anticipates a search of the ground will yield similar results.
She summed up the hopes of the team behind the project: “Our goal is that people will know the truth because the stories they are hearing are coming from the survivors directly, as told through interpreters and some multimedia displays in some of the rooms where you will hear soundscapes of some of the survivors talking.”
“The reason they called them schools was because they were validating the educational component as per the policy in the Indian Act. It was also a less scary word than what they actually were. They were institutions,” concluded Monture. “It was very much like prison for children…. You were restricted – where you went, what you did, what you ate. You had no choice.”