Six Nations Police announce investigation into deaths at Mohawk Institute residential school

Police Chief Darren Montour was given a signed letter from survivors during that announcement, outlining "mental, physical and sexual abuse by staff" at the residential school.

Chief sent a July 23 letter asking OPP, Brantford police for assistance and resources

A plaque is pictured in front of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, in Brantford, Ont., on June 24, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Six Nations Police say an investigation will be launched into deaths at the Mohawk Institute residential school.

It comes after repeated calls from survivors, and Six Nations elected chief Mark Hill, for the entire site in Brantford, Ont., to be scanned as part of a criminal investigation.

Hill, standing with survivors last week in front of what is now the Woodland Cultural Centre, said his community considers the search a multi-jurisdictional criminal and potential death investigation.

"This is a criminal investigation, and our goal is to search for justice," the chief said at the time.

Police Chief Darren Montour was given a signed letter from survivors during that announcement, outlining "mental, physical and sexual abuse by staff members," the service said in a release. 

"The letter also alleges that some students disappeared, were never seen again, and that many died while at the school," the service says. "The survivors felt that some staff may be responsible for the deaths of the students."

Police say the letter describes the bones of a child being found on the grounds around 1983, then reburied in an unmarked grave somewhere on the property.

Mark Hill, the elected chief of Six Nations of the Grand River, says the ground search at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School needs to start as soon as possible. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Records indicate 54 deaths at the residential school, but police said it's not known where the deceased were buried and survivors want them to find their fellow students.

Montour told CBC News that Six Nations Police are in the early stages of planning the investigation and determining what it will look like.

"An investigation of this magnitude is not something we're capable of doing on our own," he said, so the service has reached out to the OPP and Brantford police for assistance and resources.

"It's going to have an affect on the community as well. That's our concern," Montour added.

OPP reviewing request for help

Unmarked graves at residential schools drew national focus this year following the discovery of grave sites in Kamloops, B.C. Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said preliminary findings from a survey of the site by ground-penetrating radar, combined with previous knowledge and oral history, indicated 215 children had been buried at the site.

Bill Dickson, a spokesperson for the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), said the service received a letter on July 23 from Montour requesting that "the OPP provide investigative assistance into incidents of abuse and deaths that occurred at the Mohawk Institute, and to help locate the unmarked graves of lost children."

The OPP is reviewing the request and will meet with Six Nations and Brantford police to work out next steps, including potentially assigning an OPP case manager, Dickson said.

"We cannot speculate on the timing, processes or outcomes of any investigation while that assessment is being made," he wrote, adding the OPP "acknowledges the trauma and harm caused to Indigenous peoples by Canada's residential school system and the importance of listening to survivors and their families."

Brantford police also confirmed it received a request for help from Six Nations and the service will "provide assistance as best we can."

Corporate communications manager Robin Matthews-Osmond said due to the resources the investigation is expected to require, Chief Robert Davis would be bringing it to the police services board to get its support.

"This is a matter of significant importance to our community," she said.

No money from governments yet: Six Nations chief

Six Nations elected Chief Mark Hill said in an interview that emotions are high among survivors and the community now that the investigation is moving forward.

"I think our children, our ancestors are looking at us as 'this is the right thing to do,'" he said.

Hill said Six Nations police, OPP, Brantford police and Ontario's chief coroner have all indicated they want to proceed with the criminal investigation and the search.

He said he's also heard from Premier Doug Ford's office and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office, but hasn't received any of the $10 million survivors requested to start searching.

"If they're supportive ... then what's the hold up in getting funds to communities? That's my biggest frustration," Hill said.

A drone shot of the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont. It is the former Mohawk Institute Residential School. (Sue Reid/CBC)

In the meantime, Six Nations elected council has given $1 million to survivors to kickstart the efforts.

Hill said it is still too early to say where the investigation or search may begin, but said survivors are prioritizing what parts of the school grounds should be searched.

"We have the support and direction that our survivors are giving us," he said. "This is entirely survivor-led, community led and that's who we answer to."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those triggered by the latest 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.

Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC's new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.