Ground search of former Mohawk Institute Residential School begins in Brantford

The search of more than 200 hectares of land once associated with the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., has begun, with the Six Nations police chief vowing to work "tirelessly" with survivors "to find the missing children who did not come home."

Ground-penetrating radar being used to scan more than 200 hectares

Sherlene Bomberry was among survivors at the site of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., on Tuesday, the first day of a search for missing children on more than 200 hectares of land once controlled by Canada's oldest and longest-running residential school. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A grid-shaped pattern, painstakingly spray-painted in bright orange, now covers the grass directly behind the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont.

Police officers carefully pushed what looked like yellow and black lawn mowers between the lines on Tuesday, setting out brightly colour flags at the end of each run.

"That back there is the unknown," said Sherlene Bomberry, 65, who survived more than two years at the facility.

The search for missing children who were forced to attend the residential school has officially begun.

"This is the first step in our journey to bring our children home," said Mark Hill, elected chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, during a news conference.

The residential school property once covered more than 200 hectares.

At the Mohawk Institute, one of Canada's oldest and longest-running residential schools, children from 20 First Nation communities were abducted and abused, according to the Survivors' Secretariat, which is overseeing the search effort.

Kimberly Murray, executive lead of secretariat, said the work will take more than a year because of the weather and terrain, describing a two-year timeline as "more realistic." 

Search begins in Brantford, Ont., at former residential school

1 year ago
Duration 1:42
As the search begins in Brantford, Ont., for remains of children who attended the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, Kimberly Murray, executive director of the Survivors' Secretariat, stressed the importance of survivors' stories and the need to take ownership of school records. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

Survivors heard 'whispered truths'

On Tuesday, the searchers started behind the school building, which still stands today.

That area was selected following the guidance of survivors, a mapping exercise and a review of archival records.

Murray stressed that those who once were at the school are witnesses. While modern technology such as ground-penetrating radar will help, the first-hand knowledge of survivors and what they saw must be followed.

"The children that were here one day and gone the next, never to be seen again — the survivors are the ones that heard the whispered truths about where the babies and the children are buried."

Bomberry described being separated from her three siblings who were also at the school.

She remembered lying in the dormitory, hearing other children sob around her.

"At nighttime you could hear crying. They were from so far away," said Bomberry.

The survivor also recalled being struck by a staff member, the first time she had been hit.

"She took one of those rulers, about that thick," she said, holding her fingers about an inch apart.

"Up and down and up and down. That taught me that nobody cared about my feelings. Nobody cared what was going on."

'We will bring them home'

The search was launched following a letter from survivors that was sent to Six Nations police Chief Darren Montour in July. He said the letter outlined physical, mental and sexual abuse. 

It also brought forward allegations that staff had participated in the deaths of students, Montour said on Tuesday.

"Together we will work tirelessly to find the missing children who did not come home," he added.

"We will find them and we will bring them home. Every child matters."

Residential school survivor John Elliott walks towards the former Mohawk Institute Residential School. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Search teams are made up of pairs of community members and Six Nations police officers who have been trained to use the ground-penetrating gear.

The grids they'll search along were outlined with help from the Ontario Provincial Police's search master.

All of the work is being overseen by Beverly Jacobs — associate dean of the University of Windsor's faculty of law and a former president of the Native Women's Association of Canada. She's acting as Indigenous human rights monitor, as well as Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe cultural monitors.

Calls for funding, records to be released

Murray said the protocol for how people will be notified if the search uncovers remains has not been finalized, as conversations with survivors and communities are ongoing.

She called on the federal and provincial government to release thousands of records, including death certificates, to the secretariat and Six Nations saying they can analyze them the most quickly and accurately.

"The community lived through this attack on them," Murray explained. "They do not need nor have they asked for the government to review records on their behalf."

Mark Hill, elected chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, is joined by survivors of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School at a news conference to announce the start of the search. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Chief Hill also had a message for the government. He highlighted that the Mohawk Institute's position as one of the longest-running sites in Canada should be reflected in the funding for the search and supports for his community.

"Our focus now is on preparing our community for the potential findings of the search."

The secretariat plans to spend the winter preparing the lands they'll search in spring and training more community members on how to use the radar.

Bomberry said of the three siblings she attended the residential school with, one has died of alcoholism and the other two are still numb to what happened.

Bomberry stands in front of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, where she was forced to go to in the late 1960s. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

She said the search could "fill the void" in the hearts of community members and families.

For her, it's already helping address the shame, guilt and pain she carried for decades.

"I was 10. So I have to heal the little girl that was 10 in here to help her grow," she said.

"I'm 65 now, I'll be 66 next month. But we need the support. We need people to understand."

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.