By Doug George-Kanentiio
I was a student at the Mohawk Institute (a.k.a. the “Mushhole” for its unique brand of watery porridge) in Brantford, Ont. from January, 1967 to June, 1968 when I, along with a large group of Akwesasne Mohawks, were informed we would no longer be welcome to one of Canada’s most notorious residential schools.
Our rebellious manner and our habit of claiming unattached physical property in the city of Brantford meant we were also banished from most businesses including the Clarks department store where we were once caught with hundreds of dollars of sports equipment meant for use by kids whose only gear were third hand skates, ragged hockey sweaters and misshapen softballs.
We refused to become silent, passive victims of a system, which used brutal physical force to enforce its rules, regulations designed to break our spirits and instil fear in each one of us. Add to this was the prison diet, strict regimentation of our time and the obliteration of our identities as Natives. The consequences were children hostile to the world and prone to personal and communal acts of extreme violence.
A casual survey of what the “alumnus” of the Institute have done with their lives after leaving Brantford would affirm the sad and terrible legacy of that place at Akwesasne and elsewhere.
Our schoolmates from that time have done many bad things from murdering other Mohawks to destroying their families by replicating what we learned behind the red walls, near the broken swings and in the barns of the Mushhole.
We were warned that many kids had died there but only one was known to us, a wonderful boy named Joey Commanda from Golden Lake, an Algonquin pal who spoke with a distinct northern Ontario accent, almost Cockney British in its inflections. Joey was the youngest of three brothers to be assigned to the Mushhole, the oldest was Guy and then Rocky, a year ahead. Joey told funny stories and was smart, wiry and fast.
Together, the Algonquin-Akwesasne Mohawk gang brought a lot of trouble to the Institute’s administrators, “housefathers” and teachers. We fought with the other students, mostly Crees from central Quebec. It did not matter if we lost, we needed to strike out and if a Cree was not in fist range we turned on each other. Many of the most intense brawls took place when our group turned inward and used hands, knees, teeth and feet against our own. We took the bruises and cuts then watched as the red welts rose on our hands and arms from the long, three foot heavy leather straps used with wicked force by the housefathers to punish us for, of all things, fighting.
Their logic was that by beating children into submission the use of violence would be exorcised from our behaviour.
The harsh truth was that the beatings led to a lessening of empathy towards those who were victims because the expression of sympathy led to more cruelty, more strappings.
There were a few students from Oshweken-Six Nations there, the last inmates from a community which we later learned actually owned the grounds upon which the school squatted. No one in authority at Six Nations Band Council ever came to visit which made the desperate feelings of being abandoned to the brutal overseers suffocating and complete.
While it is true we did not break, many of the Mohawk students became seriously warped.
There were no good, nurturing words spoken at the Mushhole. We had no mentors, no adult protectors. We saw kids desperate for affection who willingly allowed themselves to be molested. We learned to position our bodies in places where the older boys could not attack. We learned quickly that the threat of violence and the resulting fear was the most effective way of controlling others.
We also realized that there was some degree of safety in a pack and as such we raised hell. We escaped a number of times, following railway tracks to the northeast, believing that in time we could walk the 500 kilometers to Akwesasne, bringing Joey and Rocky with us. Arrests by the Ontario Provincial Police and a collective strapping and denial of food was the result but we tried repeatedly, not knowing then that if we reached the reserve we would have been sent to reform schools as incorrigibles. Afterwards, many of our gang were graduated to reformatories, prisons and rehab centres.
But our fighting, arguing, thieving and Mohawk arrogance finally exhausted the school’s administrator, a rotund ethnic German named Conrad Zimmerman, the overseer who patrolled the grounds with a massive and mean police dog. He forced us out since for our actions were being copied by the even-tempered Crees while repeatedly embarrassing the school.
Rocky and Joey were, however, sent back in the fall of 1968. They were lost without their Mohawk friends and decided to hike to Golden Lake, reaching the edges of Toronto after evading the cops. Joey was struck by an eastbound train in Oakville on September 3 and killed. He was described in the official report as a “trespasser”, not as a brave and hungry Native boy on his way to a distant home.
No one was held responsible for the death of Joseph William Commanda. I don’t know if a ceremony was ever done at the place where he was hit by the train, on the number 3 track in those railyards, I hope his spirit is not confined at the Mushhole. As one of his many Mohawk friends I feel deep regret that we were not there with him, that he was left vulnerable at a place where we could not protect him. I hope that those who are compiling a list of the Mushhole victims will not forget Joey, known to us and now to them.
It is Joey Commanda, the human being, a 13-year-old Algonquin boy, who needs to be remembered.
This is the one death of a Native child that I know of personally which occurred at the Mohawk Institute. There were whispered to be others.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association. Kanentiio@aol.com