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the architourist

The Mohawk Institute, a former residential school and now home to the Woodland Cultural Institute. The current building was built in 1904 after the previous one was destroyed by fire.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

The area under the staircase is, perhaps, two feet wide by four feet long. It is dank, musty, illuminated by a single light bulb, and has an extremely low ceiling that slants uncomfortably. Meant for storage and not for humans, when this Brantford, Ont. building was the Mohawk Institute, it served as an “isolation room” for runaways, says Woodland Cultural Centre executive director Janis Monture.

“You’d be put in here for your first offence for one day, one night, with just a bucket,” she says. “If you got caught a second time, two days, two nights.” And although Ms. Monture has given tours of the former residential school dormitory since the 1990s, emotion still shapes her voice. “With maybe a slice of bread that a friend would shove under the door.”

A few minutes earlier, and in complete contrast, Ms. Monture walked me through a bright area illuminated by tall windows. With our footfalls echoing off creaky hardwood floors, she described how, when visitors are allowed to walk through again in late-2024 after a major renovation/restoration, they’ll see the Indigenous language offices behind a big glass wall.

“That’s very important for me that our language stays in this building … because these walls were never supposed to hear our language and they’re going to hear it every day.”

While the Mohawk Institute dates to the 1820s, the building in which we’re standing was built in 1904 after the previous one was destroyed by fire. The imposing, very British and very symmetrical building – complete with stately columns and cupola – contained boys and girls wings, the headmaster’s and teacher’s quarters, administration offices, and, in the basement, the (very unfriendly and institutional-looking) cafeteria and dining hall.

“The nickname for this school was ‘the mush hole’ because the kids were served porridge three times a day,” says Ms. Monture, who, with her colleagues, has recorded dozens of survivor’s stories. “Everyone will tell you they were hungry here.”

  • The Mohawk Institute, a former residential school and now home to the Woodland Cultural Institute. Heritage plaque.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

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The residential school closed in 1970 and the Woodland Cultural Centre opened two years later. By 1975, an arts program started and, in 1983, the First Nations Language Department was established to help reverse the decades and decades of suppression.

“And then [Woodland] started recording ceremonies, which would never happen, typically … but at the time we were very scared that we were losing first speakers and we would lose that knowledge, so they allowed it.”

By the late 1980s and 1990s, tours of the 1904 dormitory and the low-rise 1950s school were being given to the public. It was also in the mid-1990s that Ms. Monture began working here as a summer student. Almost 20 years later, in 2013, with a leaky roof and major structural issues, Ms. Monture, as executive director, approached the community to ask what should be done with the building.

“Do you want to save it? Do you want us to tear it down? So six months of community consultation occurred and, at the end, it was 94 per cent in favour that we keep the building and restore it into an interpretive site.”

Items found under the floorboards are displayed in the museum.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

So, in 2015 Woodland launched the “Save the Evidence” fundraising campaign. And, just recently, it was announced that the $23.5-million goal had been met. Unfortunately, the biggest boost in funding occurred in the summer of 2021 after the Tk’emlúps First Nation in B.C. announced in May that they had used ground-penetrating radar to identify about 200 potential unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“Our donations were 10 times the amount of previous years,” Ms. Monture confirms. “And it carried through all the way until December.”

And because Woodland Cultural Centre is one of only two Ontario residential schools still standing, Ms. Monture was inundated with interview requests that spring and summer.

“There was media here every day, like, days on end,” she says. “And some days, I was good. … I could keep my composure, and other days I couldn’t, right? There were days where I would be angry, I’d be upset, I’d be so frustrated. … Why did it take Kamloops for the country to realize what these institutions were?”

That is a question that Canada’s non-Indigenous people will have to carry, heavy as that load may be.

One way to lighten it might be through understanding, and when the 1904 building opens again to visitors, it will serve as a beacon of knowledge. Ms. Monture describes a fully immersive experience that will begin with an orientation film in the 1950s school building followed by a guided walk-through of the 1904 building.

“So you would walk up those front stairs … this is where you’d be signed in and registered, this is your number [children went by numbers], this is where you’re going to get your clothes, and they will see the visitor room, the infirmary. … You would then be shown the headmaster’s office.” Other areas, too, of course, including where the girls would sew or the boys were forced to box one another. And most of it, says Ms. Monture, will look exactly as it did in the 1950s and 60s.

In some of the rooms, survivor’s voices (over hidden speakers) will describe what happened or what they felt in those very spaces. It’ll be, says Ms. Monture, “very similar to the Tenement Museum in New York City … really make the space speak for itself.”

If these walls could speak? Yes … even the scary ones under the stairs. And all we will be asked to do is to come and listen.

“It’s important to me that that story is told and that the survivor voices are amplified,” finishes Ms. Monture.

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During the renovation/restoration of the 1904 building, the rest of the Woodland Cultural Centre will remain open. I highly recommend the museum for its thoughtful displays and artifacts. Visit woodlandculturalcentre.ca for more information.

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