The yellow stripe of the police cordon snapped and floated as a cold breeze swept the grounds of what was once one of Canada’s most notorious residential schools.
The entire 500-acre property is now treated as one huge crime scene as the long-awaited search finally begins for the children who were sent to live here – but never made it home.
“I hope they find bodies because of what they did to us,” said Alfred Johnson, who attended school in 1947. “They used us for slave labor. “
On Tuesday, police and members of the Six Nations of the Grand River community began searching the grounds of the Mohawk Institute – the oldest and oldest residential school in Canada – as they launched a grim search for the remains of ‘children who many believe were buried here in anonymous graves.
Between 1831 and 1970, thousands of Indigenous children were sent to the Mohawk Institute, as it was called, a red brick building that sits at the end of a long tree-lined driveway.
In theory, young students received a modern education designed to help them integrate into mainstream Canadian society. But the school’s survivors – nicknamed the ‘Mush Hole’ by survivors because of its poor food and dismal rations – have long described forced assimilation as a regime of terror, where children were subjected to abuse. verbal abuse, sexual assault and physical violence.
Using a pair of ground-penetrating radars, police and locals began the long-awaited search after sunrise, scouring the grounds of what is now the Woodland Cultural Center, a museum dedicated to the teaching the public about the legacy of residential schools.
“The survivors are the ones who have heard the whispered truths about where babies and children are buried,” said Kimberly Murray of the Survivors Secretariat, a group representing community members forced to attend school. “We must honor them and listen to their words. Modern technology and sophisticated machines and devices can help us record the truth. But they can never replace the first-hand knowledge of our employees. “
For more than a century, at least 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend schools, many of which were run by the Catholic Church.
Since May, Canada has been shaken by the discovery of more than a thousand anonymous graves at the sites of boarding schools run by the Church.
Six Nations Police Chief Darren Montour said officers were working closely with survivors and community members to investigate “heinous allegations” made about Mohawk Institute staff.
Based on the stories shared by the survivors, police advised starting the exhaustive search in an area behind the school where the stables were located.
“We have waited long enough. The survivors have been heard and fired long enough, ”Six Nations leader Mark Hill told The Guardian in an interview. “So it feels good to be where we are today, to see police officers in uniform searching the grounds. It is the concrete action of which I have spoken for a long time.
The research, prompted both by stories shared in the community and by the series of grim discoveries at other former residential schools, has also led to further calls for the government to immediately release all relevant documents.
“No one can analyze and assess cases faster and more accurately than the community itself. The community experienced this attack on them. They don’t need or have asked the government to review the files on their behalf, ”Murray said. “The time has come for the institutions to hand over all the files to the communities now. No longer hide behind colonial laws.
Careful work will be required to accurately identify potential burial sites, and community leaders are keenly aware of the need for cultural sensitivity in case any remains are discovered. Children from 20 different communities – each with their own cultures and beliefs – have been referred to the Mohawk Institute over the years.
“We work with survivors and communities with very different cultures. We have Haudenosaunee. We have Anishinaabe. We Inuit children who participated, ”said Murray. “There are bodies here. There are spirits here, and they want to move on.
For John Elliott, a member of the Six Nations who attended school in 1947, the research represents a crucial step forward.
“We used to go to a circle of survivors to share our stories. No camera, no phone. You just listened. And sometimes you couldn’t believe the stories you heard, but you knew they were true.
Elliott, now 85, arrived with his brother to school when he was just 10 years old.
“I’ve been here twice,” he says. “Because the first time I was sent here, I ran away on the first day, 13 miles from home, on Christmas Eve. My grandfather said the government sent here, but at the time I didn’t know what he meant.
Children were forced to work on the sprawling farm run by the Mohawk Institute, milking cows, planting crops and tending to chickens.
“We had 3,000 laying hens, but all we had each morning was one egg. I didn’t see anything else. They just sold everything else, ”he said.
Elliott had grown up speaking Mohawk, but school staff cut his long hair when he arrived and forced him to give up his culture and native language. “I can’t speak it anymore,” he said. “If you were beaten as much as I was for speaking my language, you wouldn’t speak it either.” “
Elliot has survived countless hits, but has been haunted for decades by whispered stories he would hear from other young boys who attended the Mohawk Institute but disappeared without a trace.
“It’s been a long time, but officials knew from the start what was going on here,” Elliott said. “I’m happy to see them start. We’ll just have to wait and see what they find. But I know it will be something ”