Set against a backdrop of hundreds of stuffed toy bears, shoes and flowers, Amos Key Jr. Introduced himself in his traditional language.
The very same steps where those childhood symbols of joy currently lay at the Woodland Cultural Centre used to feel the footsteps of a century and a half of Indigenous children who were beaten for speaking that very same language. Some of those kids are now the same age as Key Jr., still unable to fluently speak their traditional language.
The dark history of that building, formerly the Mohawk Institute Residential School, and all that happened inside to erase Indigenous languages and culture, will now forever be preserved.
The WCC, sorely in need of renovations, will finally become a National Historic Site and undergo extensive renovations, thanks to $9.4 million in government funding announced on Monday.
“With this funding, we are that much closer to realizing our dream of opening up the former Mohawk Institute Residential School as an important interpretive heritage site to educate and uncover the truth,” said Janis Monture, executive director of the WCC. The dream of renovating the building has been years in the making, with community groups formed dedicated solely to fundraising for its preservation.
Flanked by Mohawk Institute survivors at Monday’s press conference in front of the WCC, Catherine McKenna, Ontario minister of infrastructure and communities, said, “It is so important that Canadians understand what happened at residential schools. It’s a sign of progress. My dad’s an immigrant from Ireland. He didn’t know the history. I also didn’t know the history. I’m from Hamilton – 34 km away. The only way I found out about the Mohawk Institute Residential School was going to CBC,” she said, adding that the news outlet has an app where one can enter their address and find the closest former residential school near their location.
The Mohawk Institute closed down in 1970, after operating for about 150 years. It was the longest-operating residential school in Canada. The memorial of stuffed toys and shoes has been on the steps of the WCC since May, when hundreds of formerly hidden children’s remains were unearthed at a former residential school in British Columbia.
Accounts of horrific abuse from generations of Indigenous children abound from the Mohawk Institute, as well as all residential schools across Canada. From the mid-1800s until 1996, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and home communities and placed in residential schools in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian culture.
The revelations of formerly hidden graves has prompted further investigations of residential school grounds across Canada.
Preparations are underway to investigate the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford for hidden graves.
The federal government is providing $7.6 million toward the project, while the provincial government is providing $1.8 million. The Woodland Cultural Centre is contributing $378,437.
The project involves restoring the building’s masonry, restoring and replacing over 100 windows, upgrading the HVAC system, and finishing interior restorations including door frames, flooring, baseboards, and fireplaces. Improvements also include accessibility upgrades such as the addition of a barrier-free main entrance, an elevator, and accessible pathways around the building.
The work will allow the Woodland Cultural Centre to restore the Mohawk Institute Residential School site, allowing it to open as a national historical cultural site for public education and healing.
“Across the country, Indigenous communities and Canadians are mourning as more unmarked graves are located at the sites of former residential schools,” said McKenna. “Ensuring Canadians have a space where they can learn and acknowledge the past is an important step in reconciliation. Today’s announcement for the third phase of the Save the Evidence project at the Woodland Cultural Centre will help rehabilitate the Mohawk Institute Residential School site…and allow for healing and the preservation of a past that should not be forgotten. In partnership with Indigenous peoples, provinces and territories, we continue our work to advance reconciliation and ensure Indigenous communities have the tools needed to succeed and ensure the well-being of their people.”
Pam Damoff, parliamentary secretary to the federal Minister of Indigenous Services and MP for Oakville North-Burlington, said, “The restoration of the Mohawk Institute Residential School will provide current and future generations a space to heal and to share the truth of residential schools. I want to extend my sincere gratitude to all those involved in the Woodland Cultural Centre for sharing stories, art, language and cultural knowledge of Six Nations of the Grand River, Wahta Mohawks, and Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, as we continue on the path to reconciliation.”
Brantford-Brant MPP Will Bouma said the provincial government is committed to healing and reconciliation with Indigenous communities across Ontario.
“Today is a very important day, not only for the Six Nations of the Grand River, but for all Indigenous Peoples across Ontario and Canada who are reliving the pain of the past,” he said. “We stand with the Woodland Cultural Centre in their efforts to save the evidence.
Six Nations Elected Chief Mark Hill said the funding announcement is one more step towards “true reconciliation” in Canada.
“The Mohawk Institute is one of the sadder and more challenging parts of our history. This place was the earliest and longest-running residential school in this country, operating for 142 years. The intent (of the school) was to change us, to make us someone other than who we are.”
Hill said there were unnecessarily high death rates at residential schools, where the children were malnourished and even purposely starved as part of scientific nutritional experiments.
He said the building will be used as a tool to better educate Canadians about the residential school experience for generations of Indigenous children in the country.
The memorial of toys and shoes on the front steps of the WCC was vandalized and set on fire two weeks ago. A woman has been charged in relation to the vandalism. Brantford Police have not released her identity.