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The Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., operated from 1828 to 1970.

On a typical day at the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., in the 19th century and into the early 20th century, children were wakened at 5:30 a.m. to do an hour of chores before breakfast. There were two hours of schooling in the morning but the rest of the day was also devoted to chores, with the boys working on local farms – the children’s forced labour seemingly mattered more than their education.

“It was a prison for children,” said Janis Monture, director of the Woodland Cultural Centre, in a recent virtual media tour of the restored building. The centre, located northwest of the current Six Nations of the Grand River reserve and next door to the school building it inherited when the government closed the residential school in 1970, has spearheaded the campaign to preserve and restore it as an interpretive site. The site is one of a few remaining residential school buildings left in Canada and, when it reopens in 2024, will become the only one that has been restored. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the news that 215 unmarked graves have been found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., the Six Nations is seeking federal funding to start looking for the unmarked graves assumed to be in the vicinity of the Mohawk Institute.

How do you turn a place of trauma and abuse into one of education and enlightenment?

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That is the question that the Woodland Centre has been wrestling with for some years, as it began by restoring the building and now looks to fill it with information about the residential school system. The school, operated by the Anglican Church from 1828 to 1970, initially enrolled local Six Nations children who could return to their parents for the summer. After 1885, it took children from further and further away, including even some Inuit children by the 1950s, when a more recognizable school day took hold. One survivor recalled the room where French lessons were held because school administrators felt the Cree-speaking children from Northern Quebec needed to learn French.

A makeshift memorial at the Mohawk Institute Residential School honours the 215 children whose remains were recently discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

An estimated 15,000 children went through the notorious school over 140 years, although there are large gaps in the records. Today, there are only a handful of survivors left, but in the initial discussions about what do with the building, the preserve-the-evidence argument beat the burn-the-place-down alternative by a mile. (Students may have tried to burn the place in the past – the school suffered multiple fires in the 19th century.) Community members and a core group of eight survivors were almost unanimous in their support of preservation and restoration – hence the Woodland Centre’s name for its fundraising campaign, Save the Evidence.

Still, it’s a brave decision and it will require the right mix of memorializing and educating to turn the former school into a “site of conscience.” Working with survivors, historians and museum consultants, the Woodland Centre has a draft plan for programming that will take visitors on guided tours through the building from the perspective of a child, separated from parents, language and culture to arrive in this foreboding place. Different rooms – such as the dining hall and the dormitories – will be restored to different periods in the long history of what was the first residential school in Canada.

The building, dating to 1904 after one fire destroyed the previous school, had been open to visitors but was condemned: Roof repairs were first on the agenda in 2016 when the Woodland Centre began a $23.5-million physical restoration that also fixed the foundation and the floors. Subsequent phases repaired bricks and mortar and replaced the windows. The building, unveiled to media in a virtual presentation last week, now houses a library of current books – including dictionaries of the Tuscarora, Onondaga and Oneida languages, and archival material. Otherwise, it is a well-restored but empty shell waiting for exhibits. Fundraising $850,000 for that phase is now underway.

A student signature is scratched on the wall in the former Mohawk Institute Residential School.

Handout

Survivors’ testimony, old photos and other information about the residential schools and their assimilationist agenda can tell the story, but the real power of the Mohawk Institute may lie in the small things the children left behind. They scratched their names and numbers into the plaster and, up in the rafters, dragged quilts into hideouts away from their omnipresent teachers. With physical evidence of children literally hiding in the walls, the restored Mohawk Institute has the potential to rival Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum of Human Rights as the site where Canada honestly confronts its record.

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