Follow the Grand River towards Lake Erie and you will find a bend in its waters encircling a significant place. From a nearby street, you can glimpse the building down a long driveway flanked by trees. The approach is leafy, and only upon emerging at its entrance is its grandiosity fully revealed: symmetry, neoclassical features, a cupola rising above the three-storey red brick façade. It’s one of fewer than a dozen former residential schools for indigenous children left standing in Canada, and it’s an hour’s drive from Kitchener-Waterloo in southeast Brantford.
The Mohawk Institute, as it was known, closed in 1970 and was repurposed in 1972 as the Woodland Cultural Centre. The institution’s dehumanizing environment and assimilationist goals, common to all 139 residential schools supported by the Canadian government, were the focus of a tour I went on last month with Paula Whitlow, the Centre’s museum director, and Lorrie Gallant, education coordinator, as well as a small group of visitors from Kitchener and Brussels.
Walking up a half flight of stairs to the verandah, Gallant, who has intergenerational experience with residential schools, describes how children came to be at the school. In 1920, an amendment to the Indian Act made schooling compulsory for First Nations children between seven and fifteen, and parents faced prison if they did not comply. Once at school, most students remained until the following summer.
“That was the only way you could leave—if your parents picked you up,” says Gallant. Even then, long distances to home communities, including some in Quebec, meant certain children stayed for years at a time.
As we cross the threshold into the building, the heavy wooden door becomes a symbol of the divide between the children’s cultures and the narrow world of the institution.
Inside, Gallant tells us how parents were only able to see their children in the “Indian reception room” beside the entry, and how conversations were monitored to ensure no Indigenous languages were used. Often, families sat in silence as parents knew little English and children had forgotten their native tongue; children who retained their language risked punishment if they used it to speak with family. Similarly, siblings at the Mohawk Institute often had little contact with one another.
Now under the direction of three member communities (Mohawks of Tyendinaga, Mohawks of Wahta, and Six Nations of the Grand River), the Centre encompasses a museum, library, art gallery, and language department focusing on the cultures of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples. Being located at a former residential school, the organization grapples with the often divergent goals of keeping First Nations cultures vibrant while memorializing an era of severe oppression against those same cultures.
The Mohawk Institute was the oldest and longest-running residential school in Canada, its roots extending to a school founded in the 1780s by the Mohawk leader Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) not long after the resettlement of the Six Nations to the Haldimand Tract. Having himself experienced cultural exchange at a school in the United States, teaching Mohawk to European students while learning English, Brant’s vision was one of productive cultural combination.
This goal, however, was displaced by the New England Company, a non-sectarian Protestant missionary organization which had briefly and unsuccessfully run a school in New Brunswick. In 1829, they established a “mechanics’ institution” for Six Nations children in the Mohawk Village, in present-day Brantford. The school began to admit girls as well as take in boarders, focusing on occupational and domestic training to spur assimilation. After a fire in 1854, it was rebuilt on its present site, about half a kilometre to the west, in 1859.
The federal government began financially supporting residential schools as a means of assimilating Indigenous peoples under Prime Minister John A. MacDonald in 1880, with various Christian denominations continuing to operate them. The red-brick building that still stands today was built in 1904 after a second major fire, this one almost certainly set by students protesting harsh conditions.
“They always did everything in the order of their numbers,” Gallant explains — a system staff used both to dehumanize the children and to keep brothers, sisters, and cousins apart. But like most coercive total institutions, the Mohawk Institute bears evidence of inmates’ resistance to their incarceration. In the library, located in the former girls’ reading and sewing rooms, we see traces of graffiti left by young people struggling to lead normal lives in abnormal conditions.
On the second floor, we visit the girls’ dormitory, recently vacated by The DAM Studio, a music studio owned by David Moses. In the basement, the 1959 kitchen addition was, according to the annual report of the Department of Indian Affairs, “designed to make it a modern residential school.” It remains largely untouched to this day, bearing the large vats used to make the often bug-infested gruel that gave the Mohawk Institute its nickname “mush hole.”
The third storey is off limits until repairs to a massive roof leak are completed, but at one time held both boys’ and girls’ dormitories and, more recently, Woodland’s language department. The language revitalization efforts at Woodland are complemented by language courses at Six Nations Polytechnic, immersion programs for adults, and pre-school, elementary and secondary programs.
Gallant tells us, “Tuscarora is almost lost, but all the others” — Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca — “are revitalizing.” Consider how incredible a feat of resilience it is to be increasing the number of speakers of languages against which the federal government waged a hundred-year war, through residential schools and other oppressive policies. We end the tour on this more positive note, then walk around the exterior of the building to see names and messages carved into brick, evidence of perseverance.
The museum and art gallery are located in an adjacent classroom block built in 1955, separated physically and chronologically from the worst of Canada’s oppressive regime against indigenous peoples. Inside the museum is a temporal journey through Iroquoian and Alkonkian prehistory to the present day. The gallery features art exhibitions that demonstrate contemporary expressions of indigenous cultures: last month saw the closing of the annual First Nations Art show as well as Michigan-based artist Jennifer Lickers’ excellent solo exhibition, “Salvage Anthropology.” Starting on August 19 will be “Tyonatyerenhtòn:ne – They Were the First,” focusing on the matrilineal society of the Onkwehon:we (Original People).
I first visited the Centre three years ago. At the time, the institution was at a crossroads — chronic underfunding had left the old residential school in bad shape, and the roof leak precluded use of the attic storey. In the fall of 2013, staff held a community consultation to determine the fate of the building. No option was off the table — other residential schools owned by indigenous communities had been demolished due to disrepair or as a means of dealing with a difficult past. The 500 comments gathered by Woodland staff, however, indicated that most were in favour of keeping the building as a memorial to the residential school era.
Soon after, Woodland launched Save the Evidence, an ongoing campaign to raise funds for the building’s restoration as a residential school museum — the first of its kind in Canada. The most immediately critical goal, $1.5 million for the roof, was recently met and will permit construction to begin this fall. This past May, a $1.4 million contribution by the Province of Ontario was accompanied by an apology for its role in perpetuating the residential school system. The second phase of the project, estimated to cost $2.5 million, will cover the renovation of mechanical and electrical systems. The third phase, at $6.5 million, will see the architectural and interpretive elements of the museum come to life. As the numbers show, many more contributions are needed to realize the vision for this project.
“We’re going to run it like the community consultation,” says Whitlow of the final phase. An advisory committee will spearhead the long-term vision for the museum, with input from the community. The plan is still in the works, but won’t likely result in a frozen-in-time, historicist interpretation. Rather, Whitlow tells me, the restoration and exhibits will reflect the diverse experiences of survivors and highlight the changing nature of the institution over its century-and-a-half history.
Emerging from the museum and gallery, the imposing residential school building is a stark reminder that there is much work to be done before the truth of this history is acknowledged by all Canadians. Having endured to this day, it seems to pose the question, how should we remember? Beyond remembering, how do we reconcile? In Kitchener-Waterloo, we live on part of the Haldimand Tract — which was granted to Six Nations in 1784 and extends six miles deep on either side of the Grand River — most of which was sold or otherwise illegally transferred to white settlers. Like the river, the past flows through us, affecting us in the present. In the past, we may also find guidance on how to correct our course as we move forward.
For example, the Two Row Wampum Treaty is an agreement made in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee (then Five Nations) and representatives of the Dutch government, and provides a model for peaceful relations between indigenous and settler peoples.
The Treaty is embodied in a wampum (shell bead) belt, with a white background setting off two rows of purple beads, which symbolize the courses of a Haudenosaunee canoe and a European ship. Side by side, they navigate the white river of peace and friendship, together but not interfering with one another. The Treaty reminds us that reconciliation is not simply a goal to be achieved and then forgotten — it is an ongoing process in which we must actively participate. Visiting the Woodland Cultural Centre and contributing to Save the Evidence is a great place to start.