Mohawk Institute survivors creating archive of children at residential school say Ontario's being 'dismissive'

The Survivors' Secretariat at Six Nations is working to create a community archive that outlines the full history of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, but says the Archives of Ontario are being dismissive.

Archives of Ontario reportedly ignoring messages, not offering basic descriptions of archives

A person standing in front of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., is draped in an 'Every Child Matters' banner on the first Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada last fall. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Imagine a community archive and database with the face and name of every child who attended the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., and what happened to them.

Imagine it also includes who worked at the institution, what entities kept it running, and the policies and procedures in place as children faced abuse.

The Survivors' Secretariat at Six Nations, a survivor-led group leading ground-search efforts at the former residential school, is working to make that a reality, to leave a legacy for future generations. Its executive, however, says the Archives of Ontario are being "dismissive" instead of helping.

"They're not making things easy for us. It's like a hurdle every step of the way," Kimberly Murray told CBC Hamilton.

She said the archives are not responding to messages or offering descriptions about some documents they do have, and are directing the secretariat to file freedom of information (FOI) requests.

FOI requests can be expensive and take years to process. The struggle to get documents could also impede the ground search currently underway, as it could affect where and how the team searches, the secretariat says. It adds that lack of documents could impede identifying any human remains.

The Archives of Ontario fall under the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services. The ministry responded to CBC Hamilton Thursday afternoon, saying "an agreement to authorize the release of the approximately 1800 death registrations representing records of student-aged Indigenous children to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has been finalized." 

It said ServiceOntario is now working with Indigenous Affairs Ontario, the Chiefs of Ontario, and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to transfer the digitized copies of the records.

"Ministry partners are ready to meet with the Survivors' Secretariat in Six Nations to better understand their needs," it added. 

Search for Mohawk documents is complicated

Because of the residential school's history, Murray said, accessing records is harder than usual.

The former Mohawk Institute opened in 1828 and closed in 1970.

Murray, former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, said it was the country's oldest and longest-running residential school.

Some 15,000 students from 20 First Nation communities were at the school. Many of them were abducted from their homes and abused.

Records indicate there were 54 deaths at the residential school, but local police services said they didn't know where individuals may have been buried.

WATCH | Ottawa strikes deal to turn over thousands of residential school documents:

Ottawa strikes deal to turn over thousands of residential school documents

6 months ago
Duration 2:02
The federal government has struck a deal to turn over thousands of residential school documents to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, including the school narratives for nearly a dozen of the institutions.

The New England Company that opened the school may have its records on the institute in England or the U.S., Murray said.

The company also worked closely with the Anglican Church, according to Murray.

Murray said the Anglican Church of Canada's primate, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, met with the secretariat and told them the church had sent all of its documents to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).

Murray said the secretariat is still looking to confirm this by accessing the NCTR.

Murray said that means the Mohawk Chapel may also still have records about the residential school, but some may be at the NCTR.

The NCTR has more than five million records, but hasn't made them all publicly accessible.

A search for the Mohawk Institute offers 215 results, but Murray noted there are more than 14,000 records.

"We're working with them to get an agreement where they get us access to the full records," she said.

The NCTR told CBC Hamilton it is guided by survivors and their families, and said the process takes time as it's trying to respect people's privacy. It also said the variety and quality of records makes it hard for them too.

"Records may come in different physical forms, written formats, writing can be difficult to decipher, physical quality could have degraded," the NCTR said in a statement. "To analyze such records takes meticulous handling and careful investigation. These records must be sorted and placed into a relational database for searching and access."

But NCTR said it has already provided some records to the secretariat and will "continue to collaborate."

Concerns about Ontario's residential schools unit

Murray also expressed concerns about Ontario's Ministry of Indigenous Affairs (IAO) creating a residential school unit, saying that instead of creating another bureaucratic process, it should invest resources into groups like the secretariat.

"Who asked for this?" Murray said.

Kimberly Murray of the Survivors' Secretariat at Six Nations says the Mohawk Institute was the oldest and longest-running residential school in Canada. (Canada Dept. of the Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-043613)

The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs said the unit is supported by ministry staff and is not getting money that could be allocated to groups like the secretariat. 

"The establishment of the residential schools unit within the ministry allows it to be responsive to the numerous requests being received by Indigenous partners, including the co-ordination of responses from other ministries," a ministry spokesperson said in an email.

"IAO is committed to streamlining processes and reducing administrative burden for Indigenous partners so that they can focus on the work that is most important to finding their lost children."

Secretariat fighting for more provincial funds

A key roadblock preventing the community archive is money, Murray said.

The federal government offered roughly $10.2 million to help with the search and document collection; the group asked for some $24 million.

The secretariat is also in negotiations with the Ontario government about how much money the province will put toward the ground search and document collection.

The secretariat asked for $9 million, but the province is offering $700,000.

Murray called that amount "laughable."

IAO said in a previous statement its offer is just base funding for all sites that would be followed by more discussions and more funding from the province or other ministry partners like the chief coroner, the Centre for Forensic Sciences and Archives of Ontario.

"We will continue to work closely with First Nations, Indigenous communities and organizations, including Six Nations and the Survivors' Secretariat, to better understand their specific funding needs moving forward and determine how we can best support them as well as other caretaker communities with the $20M in funding currently available," the ministry said in an email.

Sherlene Bomberry, who spent more than two years at the Mohawk Institute when it was open, said she hopes to see the work completed while she's still alive.

"I'm just so glad this is a start and we needed to get this going," she said.

"We're not getting any younger."


Bobby Hristova is a reporter for CBC News in Hamilton. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.