Six Nations calls on Ottawa to provide radar to search former residential school site

Six Nations of the Grand River is calling on the Canadian government to provide radar technology to search the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute, says Chief Mark Hill.

Canadian government must help 'locate the rest of our missing children,' says chief

The site of the former Mohawk Institute residential school is now the Woodland Cultural Centre, which seeks to preserve and present Indigenous art, culture and language. (Erica Daniels/CBC)

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

Janis Monture says there's no escaping history when she walks the halls at the Woodland Cultural Centre. Still, preparing for what could be found during a search of the property will be difficult.

For more than a century, the Brantford site was a residential school called the Mohawk Institute.

Now, after preliminary survey findings at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School that the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. says uncovered the remains of 215 children, Monture says questions and a desire for closure have once again been brought to the surface, along with pain for survivors.

On Monday, Six Nations of the Grand River elected Chief Mark Hill said he's called on the Prime Minister and Canadian government to supply tools to search the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute.

"We are requesting them to provide us here at Six Nations, as well as all affected First Nations communities where residential schools were built, with the same ground-penetrating radar technology for further investigations in the hopes of ensuring all of our little ones can make the journey to the spirit world," Hill said during a ceremony where flags were lowered and a moment of silence held.

"The federal government must provide the means to help us locate the rest of our missing children whose lives were lost because of the government's actions."

Monture, who is Mohawk from Six Nations, said she has attended past gatherings with residential school survivors and listened to the stories shared by them and their families.

"There are testimonials to people talking about seeing someone in the dorm or in their class, seeing them one day and not the next," she said, adding it's not clear if the students ran away, got sick, or something else happened.

"Large sections" of the property have been searched and no human remains were uncovered, she said.

Ten years ago, a waterline was put in and radar was used to scan along the south side of the site all the way to the street.

Mark Hill, elected chief of Six Nations of the Grand River, is calling on the federal government to provide radar technology to search former residential schools sites. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

When a survivor group raised funds to build a memorial park to honour the children who were forced to attend the institute, a Stage 3 archeological assessment —used when a potentially culturally significant site is found — was carried out on two more hectares between 2017 and 2019, said Monture.

That assessment included the grounds of a former apple orchard where the director said she had heard stories people may have been buried. But again, no remains were found.

Parts of the former Mohawk Institute site still haven't been searched, and Monture said members of the community "definitely want to see that done" in the name of closure.

Preparing for what might be found

"It's always been in the back of our mind, obviously, because we know the history of the site and there's a lot of unanswered questions," she said.

"I think we also have to be prepared, as well, for what might be found. That's an even harder discussion to have."

The Ontario NDP, meanwhile, is pushing for the provincial government to use radar technology to investigate properties linked to residential schools.

"There is an overwhelming amount of work to be done to ensure justice, dignity and equity for Indigenous people — from clean water to equitable access to information," said Sol Mamakw, MPP for Kiiwetinoong and the NDP's critic for Indigenous and treaty relations, in a media release. "Finding and honouring our taken loved ones must be a part of that work."

The Mohawk Institute is shown in Brantford, Ont. The date when this photo was taken is unknown. (Canada Dept. of the Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-043613)

On its website, the Anglican Church of Canada describes the Mohawk Institute as the "oldest continuously operated Anglican residential school in Canada."

A spokesperson for the church said ground-penetrating radar did not find any human remains at the school after several weeks of searching, adding it has not had custody of the site since 1969. The church directed further questions about searches to Six Nations and the cultural centre.

The facility started in 1828 as a day school for boys from the reserve, before accepting boarders and girls in 1834, the church said. It closed in 1970.

Two years later, the Woodland Cultural Centre opened in the school building. Today the centre is a museum and provides education about the school's history.

A memorial was held there Sunday, with survivors and supporters placing dozens of pairs of shoes and moccasins on its front steps.

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

Monture said she was at the school on Monday and saw a steady stream of people, including non-Indigenous families, come to reflect and reckon with its past while leaving teddy bears and flowers on the front steps.

"It was really important for me to see those kids there yesterday, who aren't from our community, to hear and see and understand it," she said.

Giving back language, art and culture

The centre was set up to do the exact opposite of what residential schools were about, said Monture.

"Instead of stripping children and our communities of our language and culture and history and art, we wanted to give that back."

Still, not a day goes by where she walks the halls and doesn't think about the atrocities at residential schools and what Indigenous peoples have been through.

"It's really hard some days to be there and have that sort of weight on you," said Monture.

"We're trying really, really hard to make sure what they tried to take away from us never gets taken away again."

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