Tree planting at Woodland Cultural Centre

Survivors of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford took another step in their healing journey after a tree-planting ceremony on the grounds last week.

The ceremony, attended by Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller, saw Mohawk Institute survivors and students from The Everlasting Tree School plant 10 apple trees on the property, a symbolic act that brought back painful memories for survivor Roberta Hill.

She remembers wanting to eat the apples that grew in the orchard behind the school so badly, but the students were forbidden from eating the fruit.

The Mohawk Institute, or Mush Hole as it became known (in reference to the bland, sticky porridge kids were endlessly served for breakfast), closed down in 1971.

The church-run school was one of many residential schools across the country that were part of a 150-year effort by the Canadian government to strip Indigenous children of their identity in order to assimilate them into Canadian culture.

Countless students died, and almost all said they faced some sort of physical, spiritual, emotional, mental and/or sexual abuse while attending the schools.

Last week’s ceremony was a powerful reminder that the attempted assimilation failed, as Everlasting Tree School students performed a traditional ceremony on the very grounds that saw kids punished for even attempting to speak their own language.

Hill was joined by survivors Geronimo Henry and Sherlene Bomberry, who spoke of their gratitude for being a part of the healing ceremony.

The planting came almost a year after the first discovery of a mass grave at a former residential school in British Columbia that sent shockwaves around the world.

Since then, thousands of children’s remains, formerly hidden, have been unearthed at residential schools across the country.

The discoveries prompted a push for a search of the Mohawk Institute using ground-penetrating radar for potential hidden graves.

The search started last fall and was put on hold through the winter.

The Six Nations Survivors’ Secretariat, a coalition formed to oversee the search, was hoping they would receive $24 million over three years to complete the search of almost 200 hectares surrounding the school. They’ve only received $10 million.

In the meantime, the former Mohawk Institute, now operating as the Woodland Cultural Centre, will be undergoing extensive renovations over the next two years, at a cost of $24 million.

Survivors are also looking to turn the front of the property into memorial park, complete with gardens, a pond, playgrounds, and a fire pit.

About 15,000 students attended the school over its 150-year history, and records indicate about 54 deaths occurred at the school.

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