It’s been two years since the Six Nations Survivors Secretariat was formed and their mission is straightforward: to find out the truth about what happened at the longest-operating residential school in Canada.
“The truth has to be told,” Secretariat Lead Laura Arndt said Tuesday during the organization’s second annual general meeting. “It must be told.”
Ninety-six children are known to have died while attending the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford and tens of thousands of more attended the school, with the SNSS working feverishly to find out the truth of what went on behind those doors before all the survivors are gone.
Sherlene Bomberry, a Six Nations great-grandmother who never spoke about her experience at the Mohawk Institute until 22 years ago, is one of those survivors.
John Elliott, another elderly survivor who now uses a cane to get around, is also pleading for the truth to be told.
“Get the work done before I croak,” he says.
The two survivors are among a handful who joined Arndt and board members for the second AGM at the community hall Tuesday for information sharing, a warm meal and sharing of stories.
Arndt says survivors aren’t just survivors – they’re warriors.
And the team at the secretariat is working to analyze tens of thousands of documents relating to the Mohawk Institute, as well as scores of data that needs to be analyzed from ground-penetrating radar conducted over the past two years at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, which closed in 1970.
The secretariat was formed in 2021 after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked children’s graves in British Columbia at a former residential school sent shockwaves across the country.
Just a short time later, in the fall of 2021, the Secretariat was given its first case — historical remains of a child believed to be between the ages of 11-14 years old were discovered in a forested area surrounding the old residential school property. The province’s coroners office was called in to investigate and the Survivors Secretariat at that time was asked to work along with investigators in that case.
Since then, Six Nations survivors called for a criminal investigation, and now, a coroner’s investigation, into the fate of all the children who attended the Mohawk Institute – also known as the Mush Hole, a pejorative nickname for the school so-named due to the endless sticky bowls of porridge the kids were forced to eat every day.
The secretariat is looking to share the truth about what happened at the institute during its 140 years of operation – with countless stories of abuse in every form coming from scores of Indigenous children who attended the ill-conceived schools.
The SNSS receives most of its funding from Crown-indigenous Relations Canada to carry out is investigative work, with $10 million committed to the organization over a roughly four-year period.
Arndt, however, told Tuesday’s gathering that won’t be enough, considering the amount of work it will take to gather and analyze data from countless documents and hours of ground-penetrating radar conducted over the past two years at the building. The property is officially lands belonging to the Six Nations and are within Brantford’s city limits. Since the 1970s it has been home to the Woodland Cultural Centre Museum.
Arndt said 15,000 children attended the school and she estimates it will take another $39.4 million to do the work they need to do.
Canada recently authorized the release of 20 million residential school documents, she said.
It will take years, and a lot of funding, to go through those documents, she said.
“We have to unpack how to access those records and that means time. We are looking at a window of 10 years to look at those documents. 13 per cent of every residential school child attended the Mohawk Institute,” she said.
And since it was the Canadian government who ran the schools – in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children – it’s up to them to pay for the work the secretariat needs to do, she said.
“Indigenous children did not create the system. They [governments] need to pay until the truth is found and that means we need to be relentless in our pursuit of funding.”
She said the records are beginning to paint a picture but survivors complete the picture.
And they’re not going to be around for much longer, which is why the secretariat is pushing for immediate funding.
“Every day we find more and more communities have been impacted,” said Arndt.
Fifty-five First Nations communities had their children taken away and sent to the Mush Hole, she said.
“This is not just a Six Nations conversation; this is a conversation that spans this country. Survivors want answers and they want the answers in their lifetime.”