‘Save the Evidence’ campaign hopes to restore Mohawk Institute Residential School

‘I want these walls to hear our languages again’

Woodland Culture Centre has one million remaining towards its $23.5 million goal. 
Credit: 
Supplied by Six Nations Tourism

Launched by Woodland Cultural Centre, the ‘Save the Evidence’ campaign aims to raise awareness and support for the restoration of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, ON.

“[Mohawk Institute Residential School] started in 1828 as an industrial school for the children who were living near the Mohawk village, which is now located within the City of Brantford boundaries,” Janis Monture, executive director at Woodland Cultural Centre, said in an interview with The Journal.

Children who were sent to the institution were often titled as “orphaned” or “needy.” By 1834, the residential school had enrolled ten boys and four girls.

“The definition of the meaning came in many ways, either the parents didn’t have the financial resources to take care of them […] or other issues,” Monture said.

For example, Monture said maybe one parent had passed away, and the children couldn’t be raised by a single parent.

After the Indian Act came into policy, which laid ground that all Indigenous children had to be placed in government-sponsored religious school until the age of 16, children from Nunavut, Northern Ontario, Northwest Territories, and Northern Quebec were gradually enrolled into the institute.

According to Monture, the institution was in operation for 142 years.

“We believe the Mohawk Institution was one of the first among the longest-running,” Monture said.

“A lot of the former survivors [said] when they were here, they would get bathed once a week […] boys were typically farmhands, while the girls typically took care of the domestic side of the institution by doing laundry for all students.”

The children were referred to with assigned numbers instead of names, Monture added.

In 2013, Woodland Culture Centre hosted a community consultation over a six-month period to discuss whether the organization should save the building.

“At the time, I spoke to a lot of community leaders, and it came down to a fifty-fifty split,” she said.

Through several information sessions, press releases, and social media posts, Monture said the committee was ready to cast their vote on taking the building down—until something remarkable happened.

“An older gentleman stood up and said that he attended this institution, and he didn’t want his grandchildren or great grandchildren to forget what happened to him,” Monture said.

“He said, ‘I don’t want my great grandchildren to ever experience what happened to me, and I don’t ever want this to happen again, and I don’t want this country to forget what happened to us as children.’”

This had a deep impact on those present at the meeting.

“[Attendees] changed their answer to keeping [the Mohawk Institute Residential School] after hearing what he said,” Monture explained.

After the committee’s unanimous vote to keep the building, the ‘Save the Evidence’ campaign was born.

“We want it to be one of the foremost resources on residential school history, but also to educate the public on the significance of this building in this time period.”

According to Monture, the campaign aims to raise $23.5 million. Currently, Woodland Culture Centre has one million dollars left to raise.

“We’re currently working on phase three, which will be improving accessibility to the building, mechanical upgrades, masonry work, heritage window replacement and some interior finishes,” Monture said.

The final phase will focus on turning the building into an interpretive heritage site so the public can go on guided tours.

To get involved with the campaign, Monture said people can visit the Woodland Cultural Centre website to make a donation.

“It’s important to understand that the residential school system history is very much a shared history. It was a system and policy that was in place to assimilate us and make us like English-speaking Canadians.”

“The work that I’m doing now is the exact opposite of what these institutions were mandated to do,” Monture said.

Monture hopes that, through the help of her organization, the community can all speak their language one day.

“Instead of stripping us of our language and culture, my organization is trying to have this resurgence of people speaking our language, and people will be proud of who they are, and practicing their cultural traditions, singing our songs and dances,” Monture said.

“I want these walls to hear our languages again.”

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