Hamilton·First Person

I am a residential school survivor and I want accountability

If a visit to the Vatican by the Indigenous delegation brings real change, Roberta Hill writes that’s a good thing. But until then, she'll keep sharing her truth as a residential school survivor.

The Indigenous delegation in Rome is seeking answers. But until we get them, I’ll keep sharing my story

Roberta Hill attended the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

This First Person column is the experience of Roberta Hill, who attended the Mohawk Institute Residential School a.k.a. the Mush Hole from 1957 to 1961. The school was run by the Anglican Church and the Government of Canada. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Pope Francis is meeting with members of an Indigenous delegation seeking a papal apology for residential schools in Canada this week.

He needs to provide insight into deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools. Residential schools were supposed to be educational, not places of death. Working with survivors — and not against us — would be helpful and respectful.

But while we await the outcome of this week's meetings, the truth by survivors like me needs to be told. Because how do you move forward in healing and reconciliation without acknowledging the truth?

In 1954, my father died. He left my mother to raise seven children on her own. It was a difficult time for her and she was sent away to  the psychiatric hospital in St. Thomas, Ont. Little did any of us siblings know we would not see her or go back home for a long time.

My oldest sister, who is 20 years older than me, took six of us to the residential school near our home in Six Nations when my mother got sick. I was six years old. 

Roberta Hill was 10 years old when she went into foster care after four years at the Mush Hole. She's pictured here around the time she was living in her first foster home. (Submitted by Roberta Hill )

At the Mush Hole, the nickname for the now-former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., we were segregated. The ministers didn't want family members like me and my sister Dawn to be in the same group. I wasn't allowed to  talk or play with my brothers on the other side of the building. 

The school was run like the military. It was a very regimented life. Lining up for this and that, single file. You only spoke when you were spoken to, and you learned not to cry. Even though we cried a lot as little ones, none of the adults comforted us or helped us deal with the trauma and separation from family. I learned to be a good little soldier and keep quiet because there was punishment if I didn't. 

I learned how to navigate years of abuse by turning off my emotions to help dull the pain. I knew that what the staff were doing was wrong. But there was no help. The only person that I could tell was the principal who was abusing us. 

An archival, undated image of the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont. (Canada Dept. of the Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-043613)

Meanwhile, they told our families, "We'll take care of your children, and they'll get a good education." 

No, we were free labour, you got to abuse us. That's not what should have been done to any child. 

The intention of the church and the government was always clear: to convert us. Back then, one didn't stand up against the church. It had the utmost respect. But as little kids, we knew just how brutal the ministers could be.

My sister Dawn ran away from the Mush Hole with her friend when she was eight or nine years old. At that time, she was my only sibling in my life at the residential school. I was so afraid that she had deserted me that I panicked. Another kid and I followed them. We walked down Birkett's Lane and came upon a garage that was closed but had a phone booth. My friend said we better call the school and go back, because we'll get in trouble if we don't. I didn't find my sister, but they found her. I think she got strapped for that.

She said to me, "You were a rat." I wasn't trying to rat her out. I was trying to bring her back to me. 

Hill spent 12 years growing up without her family other than her sister Dawn. This photo was taken when she was 18 years old and returned home to Six Nations after residential schooling and foster care. (Submitted by Roberta Hill )

Of our siblings, Dawn and I were at the Mush Hole the longest. I was 10 years old when we went into foster care at the beginning of the Sixties Scoop. I remained in foster care until I turned 18.

I spent 12 years growing up without any of my family other than Dawn. I was completely stunned when I came back to my brothers and sisters, because in my mind they were still little guys. But the reality is they had grown up and changed. When you go back home after all that time, you're just meeting up with strangers. I wanted to come home to what I had as a six-year-old child, but that was impossible. 

I'm 71 and I didn't begin to talk about being a survivor until I was in my 50s. I want people to hear from people like myself who experienced residential school – not just from Ontario, not just from the Mush Hole, but across this country. Many survivors are in their seventies and eighties, and we're going to lose the voices. 

With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it was about hearing the truth. But it's not just about our truths. I want to hear the truth from the former Department of Indian Affairs. I want to hear from the church. I never heard from any of my abusers. Whether it is the Anglican Church — in the case of the Mush Hole — or the Catholic Church, there's no accountability other than they got to say they were sorry. There is still so much that is being uncovered for which these churches have to answer. 

Children's shoes and stuffed animals were placed on the steps as a tribute to the missing children of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)

I have no issues with the Indigenous delegation travelling to the Vatican to speak with the Pope. But will a visit to the Vatican provide a truthful account of what was done to us as Indigenous children? 

I hope the Vatican provides an explanation to survivors how this was allowed to happen. Survivors like me have stood and spoken our truths of being victimized and brutalized. Moving forward, can the church explain what has changed within their organization so that sexual predators are removed and held accountable?

I don't know if we'll ever get answers. But I'm hoping that we get more residential school records and archives. And for those kids who died in the care of the church, I hope that they will be given the honour, respect and dignity they deserve.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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Roberta Hill is Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River territory and a Mohawk Institute survivor. She’s a member of the Survivors' Secretariat and the lead on locating the Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.