Search begins for unmarked graves at former residential school in Ontario

Nov 9 2021, 7:15 pm

If you are a survivor of residential school, or have been impacted by residential schools, and are in distress, or need someone to talk to, you can contact the Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free line at 1-800-721-0066.

The survivor-led search for unmarked graves at a former residential school in Ontario is set to begin Tuesday.

The investigation into unmarked graves at Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario, has been a long-time coming as elders, survivors, and other experts mapped the grounds, poured over historical documents, and set out to bring home children who died at the school.

“We are gathered here to officially announce the first step in our journey to bring our children,” Six Nations of the Grand River Chief Mark Hill told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.

Mohawk Institute Residential School is one of the oldest and longest-running residential schools in Canada. It has gone by many names throughout its history. The school began operating as Mohawk Indian Residential School in 1831 and closed on June 27, 1970. That is more than 130 years of operation. An estimated 15,000 First Nations children were forced to attend the institute.

“This investigation and the important work that comes with it is for survivors and is led by survivors. For many, this day has been long-awaited, but also brings with it a stark reminder of atrocities that were committed against our people in these institutions,” said Chief Hill.

Children from several nations attended the school, including many First Nations and Inuit children.

The first stage of the search will target areas near the barn and other buildings where survivors say the boys at the institution stayed. Dawn Hill, a survivor of Mohawk Institute, told reporters that a lot of the stories that came out when survivors began coming forward focused on the “boys side.”

Hill, who attended the school with her sister in the 1950s, said they never spoke about what happened at the school until more survivors began coming forward with their stories.

“Everybody had kind of, like, similar stories,” she said.

The school is on nearly 500 acres of land. The search of the entire grounds is expected to take months.

“A mapping exercise has been done, and available archival records have been reviewed with 500 acres just search. The first phase of the search will focus on the lands near the Mohawk Institute’s building,” Rebecca Jameison, president of Six Nations Polytechnic, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

She added that community members and Six Nations police members have been trained in the use of ground-penetrating radar. The work is being monitored by Survivors’ Secretariat’s Indigenous Human Rights Monitor, Dr. Beverly Jacobs, and cultural monitors from other nations whose children attended Mohawk Institute.

The police task force assisted in the search by laying grids marking where the radar equipment will search, Kimberly Murray, executive lead of the Survivors’ Secretariat, said. Once the investigation is complete and the results are available, they will release them first to the community and survivors of Mohawk Institute Residential School. After that, they will release them to the general public.

“Over the winter months, we will be working to prepare the lands that will be searched in the spring and to train further community members to assist on the ground,” Murray added.

She emphasized the importance of accessing records from the former residential school will be to their search.

“It does not help us if records are housed at the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation if we cannot have access to it. It is no help to us if the records that are in possession of the Province of Ontario are sitting in the archives of Ontario,” said Murray. “It does not help us in records that can help us are sitting in boxes in the Office of the Chief Coroner or the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs.”

Murray called upon all levels of government to release the records to the community.

“The community lived through this attack on them. They do not need, nor have they asked, for the government to review records on their behalf,” Murray continued. “The time has come for institutions to turn over all the records to communities now. No more hiding behind colonial laws.”

The chief of Six Nations police said that the search is long overdue and will be painstaking, but work is needed for communities to heal.

“We will find them, and we will bring them home. Every child matters,” Darren Montour, chief of Six Nations police, said at a press conference.

To date, the discovery of more than 1,800 unmarked graves has taken place. In addition, Ontario’s Chief Coroner told reporters at the press conference that a body discovered in 2020 appears to be that of a 14-year-old. The child’s body, found near Mohawk Institute Residential School, is not confirmed to be an attendant of the school at the time of their death.

Brooke TaylorBrooke Taylor

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