Brantford: Touring the Mohawk Institute

I didn’t walk today. I’m happy about that, because it was incredibly hot. I’m back on the road tomorrow, though, and I’m hoping that the weather forecast promising cooler temperatures is correct. In any case, by this time tomorrow night I’ll be at Six Nations. Tomorrow is, of course, National Aboriginal Day (I bet you didn’t think you’d see a link to the Department of Indigenous Affairs on this blog, did you?) or, as I was told some people at Six Nations prefer to call it, Solidarity Day. I like Solidarity Day better. It speaks to the solidarity First Nations have shown in resisting Canada’s colonial approach to Indigenous people, and it also opens up the possibility that solidarity between First Nations and settlers is possible. Maybe we should all start calling June 21 Solidarity Day. What do you think?

My big accomplishment today was not bursting into tears when Jessica Powless from the Woodland Cultural Centre took me through the old Mohawk Institute dormitory building (pictured above). What an appalling institution. What a terrible history. The first school on this site opened in 1828. It burned down in the 1850s and the government built another one, which burned down in 1903. The current building was completed in 1904. It would’ve been drafty and uncomfortable, cold in the winter and hot in the summer. There was an orchard out front and a farm out back: after a certain point the kids were taken out of school and put to work as unpaid labour (the boys on the farm, the girls in the kitchens). The government wanted the children educated, but not too educated, you see. And the church wanted to run the school as cheaply as possible. Fifteen thousand children went through that place until it closed in 1970. In the Mohawk Institute’s final years I was across town in a regular public school. There but for the grace of God.

I saw the dormitories where the children slept, the kitchen and dining room where they were served oatmeal (the huge oatmeal cookers are still there). That’s why survivors (and others) call it “the Mush Hole.” The dining room was also a place where children were shamed publicly; for example, kids who had wet the bed were forced to walk around the room wearing their soiled sheets around their necks. Then, after we saw what was upstairs, we went down into the basement. “The sexual abuse primarily happened in places like the laundry and the boiler room,” Jessica told me, “because the noise of the machines would cover up the sound of the assaults.” Elsewhere in the basement is a room where a makeshift boxing ring was constructed, where staff members sometimes encouraged pairs of boys to beat each other until one of them was unconscious. Sometimes children tried to run away–the reserve is relatively close by, so it would’ve been tempting to try to run–and when they were caught they were locked into a dark closet in the basement. The other children would’ve heard them crying, and that was supposed to act as a deterrent.”One of the worst things about the school,” Jessica said,”was that the children learned to prey on each other. They ended up forming gangs. It was like a prison.” No kidding. No child should ever have been incarcerated in a place like this.

And yet signs of the children’s resistance are everywhere. They wrote their names–or their numbers, since ever student was assigned a number–anywhere the staff wouldn’t see them. They opened up crawl spaces in the dormitory walls and hid treasures there: quilts brought from home, marbles, sticks of gum. Remember, everything the kids brought with them was confiscated by the staff when they arrived. Boys and girls were supposed to be separated (they lived on different sides of the building, attended separate classes), but a crawl space on the top floor links the two dormitories. Elsewhere Jessica showed me a charred beam where someone tried to burn the building down. That’s how the earlier school buildings burned, too, it seems. They weren’t just fires; they were the children fighting back.

And even if it had been all chocolate milk and apple pie for those children, the school was intended to strip them of their language and culture, to make them ashamed of who they were. That was their goal, their purpose, their intention. They were instruments of cultural genocide. Let’s never forget that. Nor the intergenerational effects of the trauma those children experienced.

Jessica corrected some of my misconceptions about the “Save the Evidence” campaign. The $1 million goal is just for the first phase of the project: fixing the roof. Unless that’s done this year, the building might not be salvageable. The second phase will involve upgrading the HVAC systems to 21st century standards. The way it is now, artifacts have to be kept in the other building (it was built in the 1950s as classrooms). Then, in the third phase, a museum or interpretive centre–something that will educate visitors about residential schools–will be created. So even with the money the province has committed to the campaign, there’s still a long way to go before the fundraising will be completed.

I couldn’t take any pictures inside (signs are posted everywhere asking people not to) and maybe it’s just as well. It’s the kind of place you have to experience to understand. That’s why it’s so important to support the “Save the Evidence” campaign. You can donate online or send a cheque to the Woodland Cultural Centre, P.O. Box 1506, Brantford, Ontario N3T 5V6 (attention Save the Evidence).

Most of the residential school buildings in other parts of Canada have been demolished. Many of them were on First Nations and, as Jessica told me, it’s completely understandable that people would want to see those buildings, the source of so many painful memories, destroyed. But what Six Nations is setting out to do is very different and, I think, very brave. They want to use the building to educate people–settlers–about what happened here. Despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many of us know little about residential schools. I completely understand that. I grew up here–I used to work just down the road–and I had no idea what went on in this place. And we need to know. We need to understand. We need to get angry about the things that were done in our names. And then we need to try to make the future different from the past.

That was my day–or at least part of it. I also took in the art exhibition at the Woodland Cultural Centre and was very impressed by the range of work that’s been included. I thought about the way that art can create a meeting place for settlers and Indigenous people, a place where we can perhaps come to understand each other. I talked to a reporter from the Two Row Times, Jim Windle, about my walk through the Haldimand Tract. I had lunch with my friend Tom. I dropped in on Bonnie Whitlow at Laurier Brantford; she was a tremendous help to me when I visited Six Nations last December. I hope I see her tomorrow at Solidarity Day at Six Nations. I walked around the grounds of the Mohawk Chapel (the oldest Protestant church in Ontario and the only building that remains from the Mohawk Village, the reason the city of Brantford exists today) and took photographs of the monument to Joseph Brant in Victoria Park. I went to the Kanata museum to talk to the occupiers but nobody was there. I bought some trail mix. I talked to my friend Andy Houston after he got out of a long curatorial meeting about the Mush Hole Project, a site-specific art and performance event that will take place at the Woodland Cultural Centre in September (I want to come back to experience it). I had an iced coffee with my sister Pam and my niece Maggie and my grand-nephew Calvin (although he slept through it). And I saw some escaped Johnny-jump-ups in my mother’s lawn, competing with a great big dandelion.

But the thing that will stay in my mind, and in my heart, is that tour of the Mohawk Institute. I am very grateful to Jessica for taking time out of a very busy day–there’s a special event happening at the Woodland Cultural Centre tomorrow: you’ll probably see it on the news–to take me through the place. Niá:wen, Jessica. Thank you.

Tomorrow I’m walking to Six Nations along the Grand Valley Trail and Highway 54. If you’d like to walk with me, please send me an e-mail (there’s a link on the “About” page) or comment on this post, and we can try to meet up.

4 thoughts on “Brantford: Touring the Mohawk Institute

  1. Hi Ken

    There is much feeling in your blog today. The tour of the Mohawk Institute sounds harrowing. I was caused to think about memorials in Rwanda and in places like Auschwitz and Hiroshima.There is nothing pretty or celebratory about them, they are there to honour truth and suffering, to warn of the dangers of hubris and to invite contemplation and commitment to something new. To my knowledge we don’t have anything like this in Australia despite the horrific things that have happened since colonisation – a sign perhaps of our struggle to come to terms with the past.

    No doubt the memories of this day will haunt you tonight and in days to come. I hope you will find ways to be with this and with what this deeper knowing makes possible.

    Peace to you and to all who carry the scars from that place. Neil


  2. Hi breavman99, we enjoy your dayly report. Thanks for that. Mohawk Institute is a real highlight now – a touching one. It justifies the efford you had on the way. We wish you a successful result for your project and sound feet on your walk to the lake. Had you actually chats on the way with Mohawk people? They are living there around? Heide & Ernst


    • Hi Ernst, hi Heide,

      Yes, there are plenty of Six Nations people around, both on the reserve and in the city. I talked to some people yesterday at the big National Aboriginal Day celebration at Six Nations and of course I talked to people at the Woodland Cultural Centre as well. Those conversations are probably the best part of the walk. Hope you’re well.


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