The Current

Survivor-led search at former residential school could provide framework for future searches

Survivors of a residential school in southern Ontario say it's important that they've been included in the search for unmarked graves on its grounds. 

Site of Mohawk Institute Residential School being searched for remains, with survivors playing a key role

Community members, joined by Six Nations Police, conduct a search for unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar on the 500 acres associated with the former Mohawk Institute Indian residential school, in Brantford, Ont., on Nov. 9. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Survivors of a residential school in southern Ontario say it's important that they've been included in the search for unmarked graves on its grounds. 

"As a child, if some kids left there, we wouldn't have known where they went," said Roberta Hill, who spent four years at the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., some 90 kilometres southwest of Toronto.

"They could have gone anywhere or disappeared. We just would not have had that knowledge as children. So it was easy to move kids around. It would be easy to hide those deaths," she told Matt Galloway, host of CBC's The Current

She went to the school with her sister Dawn and her brother, but one day their brother disappeared. They found him years later, but Dawn notes not all families were able to reunite. 

"How many families were never told, or never had a clue, and didn't have the right to have a clue, about where they went?" she asked.

"I think it's really important now that people are researching the records. The search has finally started."

Residential school survivor Dawn Hill poses for a portrait outside the former school, which she, her sister and brother attended. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The search officially began on Nov. 9. The group leading the efforts includes members of the Survivors' Secretariat, formed by Six Nations of the Grand River and residential school survivors, and police.

They say it will take more than a year to cover the roughly 200 hectares with the aid of ground-penetrating radar.

The search was spurred by the discovery of unmarked burial sites in Kamloops, B.C., earlier this year, after a preliminary search by Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.


Kimberly Murray, executive lead of the Survivors' Secretariat, says it was important that survivors of the residential school not only had a say in the process, but were part of it. 

"It's giving back their voice. They had no control over what happened to them in the schools," said Murray. "Everything we do is through the survivor group."

Residential school survivor John Elliott walks towards the former school. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In addition to the ground-penetrating radar, which has been used to search other residential school sites, the team in Brantford is using light detection and ranging technology (LIDAR), which is supposed to get faster results.

The Six Nations police, Brantford police and Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) will all be part of the search, and will work with survivors during the process.

The Haudenosaunee community, which is part of the Six Nations, and the OPP have a strained relationship, according to CBC's Duncan McCue; but working with the police provides more resources for the search.

"They have better access to records. They're better at gathering evidence," said McCue, who is working on a project about residential schools.

McCue told Galloway that they are also working with the Survivors' Secretariat to make sure officers operate according to Haudenosaunee customs.

"There are cultural monitors who are working alongside the police to give them cultural safety training," said McCue. 

"There are ceremonies and rituals that the Haudenosaunee observe with regard to death; they are passing these onto the police. So it is a police investigation and they want to preserve evidence, but they also want to act in a culturally appropriate way." 

McCue said this could help set an example of how law enforcement can work with survivors.

"There are police forces right across the country, the RCMP, coroners who are watching this as perhaps a template for not only residential schools but missing and murdered Indigenous women investigations and other police cases," he said.

CBC News reached out to the OPP for comment, and is awaiting a response. 

Murray says she's happy to share her experience with other people, and has gotten calls already about what they've been doing. But she stressed that her priority is the residential school survivors at Six Nations. 

"If it's a model, it's a model, but that's not what we're focusing on. The survivors are doing what's right for them at Six Nations and not really focusing on whether we can be a model for other communities, recognizing everyone is going to do things in their own way," said Murray. 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these 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.

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Ines Colabrese.

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