Six Nations chief says Mohawk Institute site must be searched, calls for 'criminal investigation'

The elected chief of Six Nations of the Grand River says his community sees searching the entire grounds of the former Mohawk Institute as part of a criminal investigation that's overdue.

Chief Mark Hill says survivors must be heard and guide any steps toward reconciliation

The Mohawk Institute in Brantford is shown in this undated photograph. Six Nations of the Grand River wants the property searched. (Canada Dept. of the Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-043613)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

The elected chief of Six Nations of the Grand River says his community is calling for a search of the entire grounds of the former Mohawk Institute as part of an overdue criminal investigation.

While the federal government has pledged funds to support Indigenous communities in accessing archaeological investigations and to memorialize or return remains, Chief Mark Hill said Six Nations feels more is needed.

"They're going down a route of commemoration, from what I see, but what we're calling on is a criminal investigation."

Hill wrote an open letter to the government on Monday calling for ground-penetrating radar technology to search the former residential school property in Brantford.

That same technology was used to complete a survey at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. says preliminary findings show it uncovered the remains of 215 children.

The discovery reopened wounds for residential school survivors, saw memorials and vigils held across the country and led to renewed calls for all residential school sites across Canada to be searched.

"We have a duty here," said Hill on Wednesday in an interview on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition with host Craig Norris.

"We have a responsibility to find all of our children and the atrocities that have taken place during their time at all these residential schools across the country."

The Mohawk Institute was one of the oldest, continuously operated residential schools in Canada, according to Hill and the Anglican Church of Canada, which ran it for decades.

The facility opened in 1828, staring out as a day school for boys from the reserve, then began accepting boarders and girls in 1834. It closed in 1970.

"At the beginning there were no policies and no regulations to the institution so it's basically a free for all," said Hill. "I think that's something that needs to be discussed."

Two years after the institute closed, the Woodland Cultural Centre opened in the building. Today the centre is a museum and provides education about the site's history.

'We're not going to find the bodies where we think they are'

Janis Monture, the centre's director, said large sections of the property have been searched over the past 10 years and no human remains have been found.

The chief said his focus is ensuring survivors are part of the process when it comes to searching the site.

"They need to be heard, their voices and their experiences is what's going to guide us," he said. 

"We need to do the whole entire area. There's one survivor who says we're not going to find the bodies where we think they are."

Mark Hill, elected chief of Six Nations of the Grand River, has called on the federal government to provide the tools to search the entire Mohawk Institute site. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

In his letter, Hill offered to speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the need to find "all of our missing children." It was also addressed to Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services, among others.

Hill said he has not heard directly from anyone with the federal government, but hopes that will happen in the coming days.

Representatives for Miller and Bennett did not directly respond to questions from CBC about the Mohawk Institute and whether the federal government would supply the radar technology Hill requested for a search of its grounds specifically.

Instead, a spokesperson for Bennett sent a link to a statement provided by the minister on Wednesday, marking the sixth anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) Calls to Action.

Government says more graves will be found

In the statement, Bennett said while the TRC estimates at least 4,100 students died at residential schools, there are other known cases of unmarked graves across the country.

"Many more will be located," it reads. "This is the grim reality of Residential Schools."

Bennett's statement goes on to outline $27 million in funding for the TRC's calls to action around missing children and burials, including setting up registries for deaths and cemeteries.

"Funding is available for a range of activities that could include school-specific research and knowledge gathering on the children who died and their burial places," it reads.

"We have heard that communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast are seeking to lead this important and challenging work. We will be there with them."

Dozens of pairs of moccasins and shoes were placed on the front steps of the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford on Sunday as part of a memorial. (Supplied by Mary-Lou Knechtel)

Hill said if the federal government does not step up to provide radar for a search at the Mohawk Institute Six Nations would "100 per cent" take it on itself.

While there are no recorded deaths at the school, the chief said there are "huge gaps" in the records from while it was operating. A search of the entire property could help fill in some of the blanks, along with researchers from the community who are already working to find answers.

Joseph Vecsi, director of communications for the Anglican Church of Canada, said it has opened its archives related to the Mohawk Institute to the TRC.

"We will cooperate fully with Six Nations and other groups in their efforts," he said in a brief statement.

A 'stark reminder' of a 'dark history'

When the Mohawk Institute closed, Six Nations chose to save it to "remind this country of the atrocities that were committed under their watch," said Hill.

Today the Woodland Cultural Centre works to protect and nourish the Indigenous language, art and culture residential schools set out to destroy.

But Hill said healing can't truly happen until the school's full history is revealed.

"I'm hopeful that we will get to that path of healing truthfully, but again it's going to take the federal and provincial governments to recognize these pieces and look to the stark reminder of the dark history of this country."

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

Any Six Nations members who looking for help or in need of someone to talk to are directed to the following resources:

  • 24/7 Mobile Crisis Line: 519-445-2204 or 1-866-445-2204.
  • Six Nations Mental Health and Addictions: 519-445-2143 (Monday-Friday, 8:30am-4:30pm).

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