Residential school survivor's son wants recognition for kids whose labour helped feed home front during WWII

John Moses wants residential school students remembered and honoured for their forced contributions to food production on residential school farms during the Second World War.

John Moses' father was put to work on Mohawk Institute farm during the war

John Moses's father Russ and his aunt, Thelma, attended Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School in Brantford, Ontario in 1943. (submitted by John Moses )

As the 75th anniversary commemorations of Canada's involvement in D-Day are celebrated, one Mohawk veteran wants residential school students remembered and honoured for their forced contributions to agricultural food production during the Second World War.

"They also served," said John Moses, from Six Nations, Ont.

His father Russell Moses was one of the hundreds of children removed from his home to attend the Mohawk Institute, a residential school just outside of Brantford, Ont.

The children referred to to the school as "The mush hole."

Russell Moses attended the residential school from 1942 to 1947, along with his younger sister Thelma and older brother Elliot.

He was eight when he arrived, and as one of the "older boys" he was put to work half-days on the school's farm.

"Not all residential schools lent themselves to that particular purpose, but the Mohawk Institute was located in the heart of prime southern Ontario farmland," said John Moses.

The Mohawk Institute operated under the Government of Canada from July 1, 1885 to June 27, 1970. Prior, the Anglican Church of Canada was involved in the operation of a residential school in the same location.

3 generations of Moses men at Mohawk Institute

Three generations of the Moses family attended the school. Moses' great-grandfather Nelson Moses attended in the 1880s when it was run as a religious training school, and his grandfather Ted Moses was there during the First World War while it was a military-themed boarding academy.

"By the time of the Second World War, it was essentially converted to wartime agricultural food production needs," said John Moses, based on his father's account of his schooling.

"They didn't provide the kids with any sort of education or trades training," he said. 

"They were there to provide the agricultural labour that was necessary to keep the large farming operation going."

In 1965, Russell Moses wrote to the Indian Affairs department about his school experience at Mohawk Institute.

"When one stops to consider that we were milking from 20-30 head of purebred Holstein cattle, it seems off that we did not ever receive whole milk in my five years at the Institute. We never received butter once."

Mohawk Institute at Brantford, Ont. Date unknown. (Canada Dept. of the Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-043613)

The whole milk, cream, eggs, pigs, and chickens produced and harvested by the children were sold to local businesses.

He described the "minimal" and "appalling" food the children had to eat including oatmeal filled with worms, "rotten soup" and dry bread, despite tending to acres of crops, cattle, pigs, and chickens every day.

"I have seen Indian children eating from the swill barrel, picking out soggy bits of food that was intended for the pigs," he wrote.

"The senior boys worked on the farm — and I mean worked. We were underfed, ill clad and out in all types of weather. There is certainly something to be said for Indian stamina.

"At harvest times, such as potato harvest, corn harvest for cattle fodder, we older boys would at times not attend school until well into fall as we were needed to help with the harvest."

Russell Moses went on to join the Royal Canadian Navy and served in the Korean War. He also spent 10 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He died in 2013.

The half-day system

Ian Mosby, a historian of food, Indigenous health and the politics of settler colonialism, said many residential schools focused on agricultural labour using the half-day system where they'd spend half the day on lessons and half the day labouring.

"Girls did domestic chores and boys did more heavy farm labour, but a lot of the schools produced food that they would then sell," he said.

"There's the irony of children producing this healthy food and then selling it on the market instead of having the children actually eat the produce."

A map of the fields at the Mohawk Institute hand-drawn by Russ Moses in 1999. (John Moses)

He said during the 1940s there were major cutbacks to residential schools that were often taken out on students, especially during a time where non-Indigenous Canadians were eating better than ever before.

"The war saw huge increases in consumption of healthy foods across the board, in part because of things like rationing and yet, Indigenous kids were not experiencing this bounty," said Mosby.

"There's a lot of disproportionate sacrifice being made by Indigenous communities. We need to start talking about the sacrifices that were being made in the name of Canada by these kids who really had no choice."

More research to be done

Ry Moran, the director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), said there's a long history of students performing labour at the schools in order to keep them in operation, including farming.

"These children were essentially spending a huge amount of time there working solely to keep the school open and keep themselves modestly fed due to the gross underfunding."

According to Moran, the manual labour was prominent during the early era of residential schools but it may have been amped up during wartime labour shortages, given strong documented links between the defence department and residential schools.

"We certainly know that there is a lot more research to be done in certain areas, and this very well might be one of those areas."

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report, the over-reliance of residential schools on the labour of their students continued into the 1950s.

John Moses says the contributions of children working on residential school farms to the Second World War effort aren't talked about enough. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

John Moses, who himself spent five years in the Canadian Armed Forces in the 1980s, said his father's experiences at residential school in the Second World War are an aspect of Canada's wartime history that isn't talked about enough.

"It's a part of the reality of life on the Canadian home front during wartime," said John Moses.

"There's so much commemoration right now, as there should be, concerning the story of Canada during the Second World War. A part of that story is the contributions of Indian children at the Mohawk Institute residential school. They played a role."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.