EAGLES NEST/BRANTFORD – Renovations have begun to transform the former “Mush Hole” residential school, located on reserve land within the City of Brantford, into something of a Holocaust museum to remember the attempted cultural genocide of the Onkwehon:we way of life through residential schools.
Some current business tenants in the building have been given notice to find other accommodations while the extensive repairs to the roof and restoration of other parts of the building are conducted, although they will likely not be completed for years to come.
The current Mohawk Institute residential school building was constructed in 1904 after two previous wooden schools at the site burned down. It was speculated at the time that the second building was torched by the students themselves.
The Anglican-run and government-sanctioned school was dubbed the “Mush Hole” by former students in reference to the poor food Native children were forced to eat while there. One former student told of how she used to sift the oatmeal-like mush through her teeth to filter out the maggots.
The story of Indian residential schools serves as a reminder of government- and church-regulated atrocities as they tried to separate Native children from their culture, language and beliefs. The “Mush Hole” was officially closed in 1970, but it remains the oldest and longest and running residential school in Canada, with its beginnings in the 1840’s.
Through various fund raising efforts, the Woodland Cultural Museum located next to the former school hopes to gather and put on display articles and examples of what life was like for 150,000 Onkwehon:we children forced to attend these “assimilation camps” under the guise of education and religion.
According to government medical records of the day, as many as 50% of the Native children who were sent to these schools across Canada died while under the care of the church and the state. Horrific stories of abuse of all sorts have been told by former “students,” which prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make a public apology to all First Nations across Canada for past wrongs done against Onkwehon:we children within the residential school system.
“It’s a reminder to Canada of what happened,” says Woodland Cultural Museum Director Paula Whitlow.
When complete, the Residential School Museum will not focus on any one era of its existence, but rather try and include rooms that reflect different eras between when the school opened and when it was officially closed.
Although this will be a very costly project to complete, Whitlow believes it is necessary to remind people of the horrors of Canada’s government- and church-legislated racism and genocide.
Consultation with former “Mush Hole” students, as well as newspaper accounts and old photographs are helping the renovations team piece together what the school looked like through many generations of students, or “inmates,” as some government documents refer to them.
The roof and copula alone will cost between $800,000 and $1.1 million to fix and restore. The entire project could exceed $5 million.
A fundraising campaign called “Save the Evidence” has begun to help cover some of the enormous costs of the renovations. Although a full time fundraiser has been hired, she will be working with the Planet Indigenous exposition committee, as well, and will not be able to focus exclusively on the Mush Hole project until next year.
After lobbying Six Nations Elected Band Council last year, and reporting that the situation can no longer be ignored, Council earmarked $200,000 to go towards the new roof. A stopgap of a mesh and plastic membrane has been installed over the old roof to help prevent further damage to the building until the full amount of the new roof has been achieved. It will act as a temporary measure but will only be good for a maximum of two to three years.
“It’s kind of a Band-Aid on the situation like we’ve been doing for the past 30 years,” said Whitlow, “because there has never been adequate funding assigned to keep it up. We’re always putting Band-Aids on it.”
For some former resident students, even the site of the building is too much to bear and some have lobbied to have the building torn down. But most who partook in a survey and three consultation meetings with the community indicated that it was important to keep the building as a sad reminder of the black stain on Canadian history.
“Of the almost 500 responses we received, only seven recommended it be torn down,” says Whitlow. “I know that 500 responses isn’t a lot, at the same time we feel the results from the 500 are pretty telling.”
Although careful not to voice her opinion while the survey was going on, Whitlow says “I can’t speak for everyone, but I think since this is part of the Woodland Cultural Museum … [it’s] not a negative thing,” she says. “I’ve driven in to work a few time thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t imaging coming down that long laneway and seeing nothing at the end of it.’ My heart hurt thinking about that.”
She believes the appetite for information about the residentential schools area is strong, especially within non-Native Canada, who were kept in dark for decades about Canada’s most recent genocide of Native culture and the subsequent deaths of an estimated 50,000 Onkwehon:we children.
“When we hosted Doors Open Brant last year, and everybody was busy doing the research on the school for that, the majority of people that came through that day wanted to know the national picture about the residential schools,” says Whitlow. “They want to know how many schools were there across Canada; how many kids were affected; how many are still surviving today.”
“I understand why some do not want to remember, but from a historic perspective, it would be a shame to remove it.” Whitlow says. “When our younger generations are learning about the residential schools era, it’s important that there is somewhere they can physically see the buildings, the rooms, smell it and feel it to help them understand the depth of the experience.”