Recovered items shed light on daily life at Mohawk Institute residential school

BY: Jonnica Hill

BRANTFORD — Items recovered during extensive renovations now underway at the former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School in Brantford are revealing more about what life may have been like as a student at the government- and church-run facility.

Researchers say very few school-related items have been found among artifacts uncovered at the former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School.

“(Students) were not getting an education in terms of book learning, and it’s reflected in what you’re finding because most of these things are work-related not school-related,” said Woodland Cultural Centre’s Museum Education Department lead Tara Froman.

Some of the work-related artifacts found during the extensive renovations of the property include clothes pegs, a scrub brush, a screwdriver and other tools.

Froman was a guest lecturer along with Sarah Clarke of Archeological Research Associates during a lecture hosted in Brantford Wednesday, where over 50 people came to hear the pair present findings and stories about the history of the property.

“Behind the Walls & Under the Ground” is the fifth lecture of the 2018-2019 speaker series “Revealing the Truth”, hosted by the grassroots group ‘Friends and Neighbours’. For the past three years, the group has aimed to educate the community about the Mohawk Institute in support of WCC’s ‘Save the Evidence’ campaign: a fundraising initiative to see the building restored to become a museum, dedicated to telling the story of one of Canada’s residential school era.

The Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School ran from 1828 to 1970. The building was burned down by students in 1903 and rebuilt the same year. Now, it is the only residential school building remaining in southern Ontario.

In 2008, a settlement agreement was reached between the federal government and former students of the residential school system. That agreement saw Ottawa earmark $2 billion in financial compensation for survivors and $60 million to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a national investigation launched that summer to assess the impacts residential school had on Indigenous people in Canada.

In 2015, the TRC released its executive summary — concluding that Indigenous people endured a “cultural genocide”. The TRC then articulated 94 public calls to action for organizations and individual Canadians, in order to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation”.

“Like most Brantfordians, if not all, I had no idea what was really going on in the school,” said Lorna Stratton, a regular guest at the lecture series. “Once you know what the story is, you can’t just get over it.”

“There was a history that was never written, and now is the critical time to talk about the history,” said ‘Friends and Neighbours’ group member Mary-Lou Knechtel. “There is really a thirst for learning, but the important thing is all communities get together.”

Restoration at WCC is now entering stage three and organizer Carly Gallant says the campaign is just $3 million away from its $16 million goal.

Froman told audience members that former students spent just three hours of  in-class learning while the rest of the day was spent working. Farming was the main activity for male students, while females had domestic jobs such as cleaning and sewing. The students did not benefit from their labour, explained Clarke, as most produce was sold at local markets.

Students were often underfed, and regularly served a porridge-like meal, which earned the institute the nickname “Mush Hole”. Researchers said many of the artifacts found inside are believed to be items that children stole and hid, such as empty food containers.

Other items such as shoes, clothing, comic books, letters and toys were discovered behind walls and in a hidden fireplace. Froman said survivors have come forward, and remember making or using quilts that were later found behind a hidden wall.

Archeological assessments have been done on the centre’s property as well as land on the left side that is the proposed location of the Mohawk Village Memorial Park. According to Clarke, thousands of artifacts from different time periods were found, including hair clips from recent years and pottery that predates the settlement of the Mohawk Village in 1789.

ARA also assessed the location and removal of the apple trees from the front yard, which were thought to mark burial sites. Clarke confirmed there were no human remains found under the trees or on any other part of the property.

“This isn’t necessarily an archeological assessment at this point as much as it is using archeological methods to ground truth,” said Clarke.

Rick Hill, of the Woodland Cultural Centre, will speak to the experiences of survivors at the final ‘Friends and Neighbours’ lecture of the season on March 20 at Laurier Brantford.

Jonnica Hill is a second year student at Laurier Brantford’s Digital Media and Journalism program. She is a Dean’s Honour Roll recipient, originally from Hamilton, Ontario.

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1 Comment

  1. I went to the Mush hole 1965 to 1969 when the school closed for the students.Survivors did not get 2 billion.500 million went to police forces all across this country, the same police forces that returned us when we escaped the torture and abuse each and every time.

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