Woodland Cultural Centre, site of former residential school, gets $9.4M from governments for upgrades

The Brantford, Ont., building that houses the Woodland Cultural Centre and once served as the Mohawk Institute Residential School will be restored with about $9.4 million in funding announced by the Ontario and federal governments.

Restoration of former Mohawk Institute to be completed in 2024, building becoming national historic site

The former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., will become a national heritage site. Building upgrades and repairs of what is now the Woodland Cultural Centre will be funded with more than $9 million from Ottawa and Ontario. (Canada Dept. of the Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-043613)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The Brantford, Ont., building that houses the Woodland Cultural Centre and once served as a former residential school will be upgraded with about $9.4 million in funding announced by the Ontario and federal governments.

The centre's work includes teaching about the history of the Mohawk Institute Residential School. The building is in the process of being designated as a national historic site.

"All Canadians can learn about the horrific past of assimilation imposed on Indigenous children and their families, and we can participate in reconciliation and healing," Catherine McKenna, minister of infrastructure and communities, told reporters on Monday.

The funding will go toward fixing the building's masonry and windows, restoring the insides, upgrading HVAC systems and making the structure more accessible, with a barrier-free entrance and elevator inside.

The upgrades will be finished in 2024. The entire process has been guided through consultation with residential school survivors.

Federal Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna announced the funding boost Monday. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Janis Monture, the centre's executive director, said the funding will help educate Canadians and "uncover the truth."

It comes amid news there will be a ground search at the site for unmarked graves, with precise plans forthcoming.

Calls for a search began in May, with the detection of grave sites near a former school in Kamloops, B.C. Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said preliminary findings from a survey of the site by ground-penetrating radar, combined with previous knowledge and oral history, indicated 215 children had been buried there.

The Mohawk Institute 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 building.

A memorial sits on the steps of the Woodland Cultural Centre, formerly the Mohawk Institute Residential School. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The upgrades are the third and final phase in the "save the evidence" campaign.

"Our community overwhelmingly wanted to repair the building — to save the evidence of what happened there during this dark chapter in Canadian history and to ensure this history is never forgotten," reads the centre's website.

Survivors support keeping building

Myeengun Henry, former chief of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, said his mother survived the Mohawk Institute, and the impact it had on her was generational.

"Hugging and doing things like that wasn't offered in our family, so I learned that and did the same with my kids. I didn't hug them and I still have a hard time doing that," he said.

"I know it and it's still not natural for me to hug my daughter. That's painful, I want to."

He said investing money into the building is the right move.

Myeengun Henry, former chief of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, says his mother survived the Mohawk Institute. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Roberta and Dawn Hill, sisters who survived the school, said keeping the site standing will serve as proof of the atrocities Indigenous people faced.

"At first, I didn't think it was a good idea ... there was no connection I wanted to make again, but after I thought about it," Roberta said.

"There's not much of a history out there about residential schools. You tear it down, there goes all of the evidence and they get away with it again, so I like what they're doing now. It's going to house all the services, our stories, and it's the survivors' lived experience in here that you're going to hear about."

Roberta Hill says she and her sister Dawn also survived the Mohawk Institute. They're both happy to see the building being used to remind people of the horrors Indigenous people endured. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those triggered by the latest 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.

Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC's new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.


Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca