Tree planting at former residential school a 'big step' to 'reclaiming my power,' survivor says

Residential school survivors, students and government officials including Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Canada Marc Miller participated in a tree planting ceremony at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., on Tuesday.

Crown–Indigenous relations minister said he supports the search but won't say if feds will give more money

Roberta Hill described crawling on her stomach through the apple orchard in front of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School as a student to eat the apples that fell from the trees — before being beaten by school staff for doing so. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

When Roberta Hill sees the field of green grass in front of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, she said she thinks about the apple orchard that used to be there — and how badly as a student she wanted to taste some of the apples that were forbidden to her and other students.

"I just belly crawled right across … I grabbed an apple, crawled back and I ate it behind that tree and it was the most delicious apple you'd ever eat," Hill told reporters in Brantford, Ont., on Tuesday.

It was a field full of food tended to by starving children in front of the school where they were abused.

Hill thought no one saw her take an apple, but minutes later she said staff members found her and beat her.

"To me, I didn't care how much they punished me, the apple was worth it," Hill said.

On Tuesday, Hill and other survivors got to reclaim the fruits of their labour.

Geronimo Henry (centre), a survivor of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, plants a Golden Delicious Apple Tree in the field in front of the former residential school alongside Marc Miller, minister of crown–Indigenous relations on May 24. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Hill, along with other survivors, Everlasting Tree School students and government officials including Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations Canada Marc Miller participated in a tree planting ceremony.

The ten golden delicious apple trees planted symbolize the past, beauty, nourishment and, among other things, the government's assimilation process, as Six Nations elected chief Mark Hill said the word apple was among the first English words taught at the residential school.

Before the trees were planted, students recited a poem in the Mohawk language and sang sacred seed songs to give thanks to the Creator for the apple trees.

After that, survivors, children and government officials dug into the soil with shovels and their bare hands before planting the trees as the sun shined down on them and a slight breeze blew.

"I'm very grateful for today," Sherlene Bomberry, another residential school survivor, told CBC Hamilton after planting one of the trees.

She said Tuesday was a "big step" toward healing and "reclaiming my power."

The tree planting ceremony came almost a year after Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation's revealed preliminary information obtained through ground-penetrating radar showed there could be as many as 215 unmarked children's burial sites near the school in Kamloops, B.C.

"I remember when that came up last year how my body was so angry and I just cried and cried," Bomberry said.

The ceremony also came as the ground search for potential unmarked graves at the former Mohawk Institute — inspired by Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation's search — resumed.

Survivors paused search efforts over the winter months because of the snow.

Children help plant an apple tree in front of the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., on Tuesday. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The Mohawk Institute, also known as the Mush Hole because of the food students were forced to eat, was among the oldest and longest running residential schools in the country. It operated for 136 years.

An estimated 15,000 students attended and records indicate 54 deaths at the residential school.

It may take years to search the whole property, which is roughly 200 hectares.

Survivors say the City of Brantford recently allowed them to access any documents it has related to residential schools and called on all levels of government to give survivors all documents. Hamilton city council also supported Brantford's call on Wednesday.

The former residential school is now the Woodland Cultural Centre, which serves as a museum and provides education about the institute's history. It'll be undergoing renovations over the next two years now that $24 million has been raised and is expected to fully open in late 2024.

Survivors are also hoping to turn the front of the property into Mohawk Village Memorial Park, which would include pathways, ponds, a playground, gardens and a fire pit, among other things.

Minister won't say if more money is coming

Minister Miller said hearing the survivors' experiences were tough but important to hear as someone in a position of power. Survivors thanked Miller for attending the ceremony.

"There's a lot of healing to do in communities and a need for both short term investments in uncovering a very painful truth of Canada's history but also medium and long-term solutions in not re-producing the model of taking kids away from their families," Miler said.

"There is a seamless thread that I've heard in my visits over half a dozen residential schools ... one of hope."

The Survivors' Secretariat, which is leading the ground search, initially asked Ottawa for $24 million over three years to do the search, but the government only offered $10,259,975 over three years.

Asked by CBC about if the federal government would offer up more money to continue the ground search and establish the memorial park, Miller said he wouldn't comment publicly but said he's working with "all levels of government to make sure that this is properly honoured."

A sign for the planned Mohawk Village Memorial Park sits in front of the former Mohawk Institute. Survivors say they want money to breathe life into the image and help reclaim the former residential school site. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Miller told reporters the government is continuing to release documents to help ground search and archival efforts related to residential schools.

He acknowledged there's a lot more work to be done in not only turning over documents but also understanding the trauma within them.

Survivors who spoke to CBC also brought up the Indian day schools settlement, saying the deadline to submit a claim — July 13 — should be extended.

The class action settlement offers former residential school students between $10,000 and $200,000 worth of compensation based on how they were abused.

Miller said while the process isn't in the hands of the government, he said he's "looking at what the options are with our lawyers to support this process."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

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.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.