The search has begun.
The former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Canada’s oldest and longest-running residential school, has officially become the focus of a criminal death investigation, as police and residential school survivors began the somber task of combing the vast grounds for potential hidden graves on Tuesday.
The investigation begins five months after the discovery of 215 children’s remains in a hidden grave at a former residential school in British Columbia sent shockwaves around the world.
Ensuing searches of grounds at residential schools across the country revealed hundreds more remains of innocent children who were snatched from their families and forced to attend the government-mandated, church-run schools in a bid to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian culture.
That assimilation included torture and rampant abuse at so-called residential schools across Canada, where thousands of children went missing and no answers were ever given as to their fate or whereabouts.
The search at the Mohawk Institute is just one small way some survivors, now all senior citizens, are starting to feel a bit of closure from a torturous childhood they never asked for and had no choice but to heal from.
“It will hopefully bring some closure to families and communities who have been missing their loved ones for so long,” said Rebecca Jamieson, president of Six Nations Polytechnic, who led Tuesday’s press conference announcing the search was underway.
Phase one began this week, which means the grounds near the old colonial building will be searched first before expanding further.
It is a community and survivor-led search, with the help of Six Nations Police and the Ontario Provincial Police.
A mapping exercise of the grounds has been completed and archival records have been reviewed.
Community members and Six Nations Police have been trained in the use of ground-penetrating radar, which will be instrumental in aiding the search for hidden graves.
All work is being monitored by Six Nations Survivors Secretariat human rights monitor Dr. Beverley Jacobs. The secretariat was created and formed by survivors to oversee the search of the former Mohawk Institute.
Cultural knowledge holders are conducting necessary ceremonies and traditional practices respecting the lives of any children who may potentially be buried on the grounds.
According to records, at least 45 children died or went missing while attending the Mohawk Institute.
Dawn Hill, a Mohawk Institute survivor, attended the Mush Hole from 1957 to 1961.
“We’re finally going to get some justice for those children,” she said. “We’ve all heard stories. As everybody came out (of the Mush Hole) and started talking, everybody (survivors) had similar stories. All of those stories are now coming to the forefront.”
The Ontario Provincial Police are assisting in the investigation.
Chief Mark Hill said survivors, “have been telling us for years the stories of what happened to them in these so-called schools. This investigation is for survivors and is led by survivors. This day has been long awaited but also brings with it a stark reminder of the atrocities that were committed against our people in these institutions. The coming months will definitely be difficult for Six Nations.”
Mental health supports will be available as the community prepares for the possibility of finding children’s remains, said Chief Hill.
He called upon the federal and provincial governments to honour their commitments to reconciliation, as the expensive search gets underway. Both the federal and provincial government have committed millions to aid in the search.
“The months ahead will be difficult but this work will allow our community to begin the process of healing together and place the spirits of our lost children at rest. It’s been a very challenging time today. It’s been very tough on our community. We have to do this properly.”
Kimberly Murray, executive lead of the survivors’ secretariat, said, “I cannot stress enough the importance of listening to survivors. Hearing their truths that they have to share. The survivors are the ones that heard the whispered truths about where the babies and children are buried. They are the ones that know what these lands looked like, decades ago, and where the many different structures were located. We must honour them and listen to their words.”
The data from the searches will be uploaded to secure servers every day, said Murray.
The data will be sent for analysis to experts and collated into a final report. Once the report is finalized the results will be released to the community.
“This is just the beginning of our search. Over the winter months, we will be working to prepare the lands to be searched in the spring and to train further community members to assist on the ground.”
A complete search plan for the remaining 500 acres is being finalized.