Another search for missing Indigenous children has begun at the grounds of one of Canada’s longest-running residential schools, where a related criminal investigation into deaths at the former “school” is already underway.
The former Mohawk Institute Residential school in Brantford, Ontario, was an Anglican-run institution that had 90 to 200 students at any given time while it was open, from the mid-1800s and 1970. At least 54 deaths have been documented there. In July, Six Nations police announced a criminal investigation into the deaths after repeated calls from community members to scan the grounds.
The body of a teen was found at the site last year, prompting an investigation to determine whether the person was connected to the school.
Roberta Hill, a Mohawk Institute survivor, previously told VICE News that the institute was known for being a “cruel place,” not unlike the rest of Canada’s more than 100 residential schools. Hill was sexually assaulted and administrators kept her far away and isolated from her siblings, who were also forced to attend. She said school staff carried straps with them all the time, and often hit children—for wetting the bed, or speaking their languages, or for no reason at all.
Malnutrition and disease were also rampant. The Mohawk Institute was known as the “mush hole,” after the maggot-filled, porridge-like mush that students were forced to eat there while administrators were served roast beef and fresh vegetables.
Starting Tuesday, survivors, community members, and Six Nations police will use two ground-penetrating radar machines to scan the 500 acres of land for disturbances that could point to probable unmarked graves. Six Nations police members will be paired with community members throughout the search.
“We are gathered here to officially announce the first step of bringing our children home,” Six Nations Chief Mark Hill said on Tuesday, adding that the search is led by survivors, for survivors.
“Survivors have been telling us for years about what happened to them in these so-called schools,” Chief Hill said. While the search has been “long awaited,” it also acts as a blatant reminder of the “atrocities committed at these institutions.”
Various members, including the Survivors’ Secretariat’s human rights monitor Beverly Jacobs will monitor the search, as will Haudenosuanee and Anishinaabe cultural monitors.
The Survivors’ Secretariat is a survivor-led initiative formed in July that organizes and supports efforts to document, uncover, and spread awareness about the Mohawk Institute and everything that happened there.
Chief Hill called on Ontario and the federal government to provide enough funding and support to carry out the search and investigation. “We need to continue to hold all levels of government accountable,” he said, adding the teams have not so far received equitable funding.
The search announced this week is only the latest at former residential school grounds—experts estimated that there may be as many as 15,000 unmarked graves across Canada. In May, Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc announced the presence of more than 200 likely graves of children at the site of the former Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School. The news set off a national reckoning in Canada, forcing many—particularly non-Indigenous people—to learn more about Canada’s horrific residential school system.
“I want to remind people this is a death investigation,” said Kimberly Murray, executive oversight lead with the secretariat.
Murray also called on the province of Ontario, the federal government, and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to release all records related to the Mohawk Institute to the community. “It is of vital importance that communities take ownership over the records,” Murray said. “No one can assess the records more quickly and accurately than the community.”
Canada’s government- and church-run residential school system was intended to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children across the country. About 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the schools, where they were brutally mistreated, often for speaking their Indigenous languages or expressing their cultures. The last residential school didn’t close until the mid-1990s.
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