Warning: The story and video contain details that are graphic and may be disturbing.
The Mohawk Institute in Brantford is one of two remaining former residential schools in Ontario. Other such buildings have been torn down or converted, but the hope is that this location is preserved for better understanding and learning. Breakfast Television is the first media to walk through this building since undergoing renovations, with host Melanie Ng taken on the tour.
Each room, each wall, and each door holds within it decades of pain and suffering. Carley Gallant-Jenkins, a coordinator for “Save The Evidence,” speaks of its history. Established in 1831, children from Six Nations were taken away from their parents and brought here to assimilate — with the goal of eliminating their Indigenous cultures and language.
Entering the various rooms, Gallant-Jenkins points out what would occur in each, starting with the boys’ side of the building.
“Teachers and faculty who worked here would pull boys out of their beds at night, bring them down here, make them fight, and they’d watch through windows,” Gallant-Jenkins says.
“The boy who lost would have to clean up afterwards. The boy who won would get extra perks,” she adds, referring to the ‘fight hallway.’
Moving to the boiler room, we learn that physical and sexual abuse often took place in these types of areas because of how loud they were.
“One of the girls’ roles was to do laundry for students and the surrounding community,” Gallant-Jenkins says.
“They were hired out from the school to do the community’s laundry; the school was profiting off of their labour.”
The cafeteria, which was a gathering space where siblings could catch a glimpse of one another, was separated by gender and number.
“They did do their best to try and separate family units,” Gallant-Jenkins says.
In 1970, The Mohawk Institute closed its doors but reopened two years later as the Woodland Cultural Centre. It was deemed a local historic site so that decisions would remain within the hands of the community.
The centre was designed to promote First Nations culture and heritage. After a major flood in 2013 caused severe damage to the building, the community voted to rebuild it.
“If this is a pile of rubble with a plaque in front of it saying what it was, it’s not the same as walking through these hallways and standing where these children stood,” Gallant-Jenkins says when asked why the decision to restore the building was made.
The “Save The Evidence” campaign cost millions of dollars. The ideal timeline was for the building to open its doors again in 2020, but fundraising efforts were hampered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With hundreds of thousands more to raise, organizers are now hoping for a 2022 opening.
“I think I want people, personally, to be left with the resilience, to see what happened to these people, and to see where these communities are today,” Gallant-Jenkins says.
Click here for more information on the Save The Evidence campaign.
Click here to join a virtual tour of your own, for a small fee to support fundraising efforts.