Hamilton

Six Nations works to preserve the 'difficult' history of a former residential school

While restoring the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford as part of the Save the Evidence campaign, writings and scrawlings were found of former residential school students dating back to the early 1900's.

Workers uncovered writings of former residential school students while restoring the Woodland Cultural Centre

(Woodland Cultural Centre/Twitter)

Workers restoring the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford have uncovered writings on beams and walls from Six Nations students at the former residential school dating back as far as the early 1900s.

The discovery has added a new dimension and poignancy to the $16 million project, which was already aimed at reviving the centre with a greater focus on its history as a residential school.

"They realized this project was much larger than what we originally intended, which was to just fix the roof," said Carlie Myke, outreach coordinator for the Woodland Cultural Centre.

"It became this building needs to be saved, not just to continue business as normal but to be a site of national conscience for a place where people can come to learn about the history of residential schools in Canada and the experiences of survivors," said Myke.

We are doing our best to preserve this part of history even though it's difficult.- Carlie  Myke , Woodland Cultural Centre

The building operated as the Mohawk Institute, a residential school, from 1828 to 1970, housing Indigenous children from Six Nations.

Two years after it closed, it reopened as the Woodland Cultural Centre, designed to promote First Nations culture and heritage while providing insight to the residential school system.

Some of the markings include dates, with one in white dated 1917. In some cases, beams with writing that will have to stay in place for structural reasons will have pieces cut out so the writing can be displayed.

Myke says they've saved as many of the pieces with writing that can be safely removed as they can, and the construction team is working closely with the collections management and the museum department to "preserve as best as possible."

When the centre reopens Myke says they plan on displaying the items that were found with the restoration, and says the finding of these definitely informs "understanding at least part of the residential school experience."

Important to preserve

And despite the history of the building as a former residential school, Myke says restoration project has had a lot of positive support.

"We are doing our best to preserve this part of history even though it's difficult, even though it's not pleasant to think about because it's important to remember, and I think that it's important for people to know the full truth," said Myke.

The campaign to restore the centre started in 2013 after the building received extensive water damage. After information sessions with the Six Nations community on what should be done with the building, the overwhelming response was to repair the building.

The fundraising campaign was called Save the Evidence which looks for support as they restore the building for historic and educational purposes.

During the restoration process at the Woodland Cultural Centre, workers uncovered writings and scrawlings from former residential school students dating back to the early 1900's. (Woodland Cultural Centre/Submitted)

The project has also received support from a variety of sources, including the Six Nations Elected Council and Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport, and various businesses, schools and other individuals.

The Woodland Cultural Centre has raised most of that money and still needs to raise $3 million.

During the restoration process at the Woodland Cultural Centre, a former residential school, writings and scrawlings were uncovered during the construction process (Woodland Cultural Centre/Submitted)

As of right now, they're still fundraising for the last phase of construction and the reopening of the centre, with the hope that can happen in June, 2020, 50 years after the school shut down.

In terms of more support, Myke says they are always open to it and can facilitate if groups wanted to do their own fundraiser. People can also donate online.

"We have the ongoing support of Six Nations as well as our support communities, and we work as closely as we can with the survivors to make sure that their stories are going to be told."