WARNING: Some details in this story may be disturbing to some people.
The Six Nations of the Grand River’s elected chief is demanding that a search for potential unmarked graves at a former residential school in Brantford be treated as a criminal investigation.
Mark Hill, speaking on behalf of survivors, is suggesting that the probe of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School should take the shape of a multi jurisdictional police task force.
“As stated in our June 11th letters to the premier, the solicitor general, the attorney general, the chief coroner’s office, as well as the Ontario provincial police, that this again is a criminal death investigation,” Hill said at a presser out front of the former school on Wednesday.
“The reason we are commencing in this way is because we have witnessed what other communities have done.”
Hill said there was “much work to do” and that a search should be survivor-led aided by funding from both the federal and provincial governments.
“We have not yet received any funding from the federal or provincial governments to move this important work forward, and in fact, even further to that, we have not received an official response from our prime minister of our letter dated May 31st,” Hill said.
The chief expressed his displeasure with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a recent trip to Hamilton which did not include a stop at the former residential school – just 30 minutes away.
The Mohawk Institute opened in 1828 and was relocated to Brantford in 1840 before being destroyed by two separate fires in 1858 and 1903. After the last rebuild, the federal government took responsibility for the school in 1945 before it’s closure in 1970 with some children still in the residence until 1971.
The centre’s records show that some 54 children died at the institute over its 142 years of operation.
Some of the grounds have also been searched through the years via infrastructure repairs but not all of the surrounding area.
“What we don’t know is where those little bodies are buried, ” Hill said.
“We know that throughout the institute’s history, there was upwards of close to 500 acres that formed the school property.”
On Monday, both the federal and Ontario governments jointly committed $9.4 million for another phase in the restoration of the residential school building. Ottawa is putting up the bulk of the money, with $7.6 million coming through its Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program and $1.8 million coming from Queens Park.
A newly created Survivor Secretariat is set to give $1 million to begin a community led search on an interim basis.
“We are here to provide support and resources, and we hope that all other communities and organizations will do the same. With this work, what we’ve learned from other communities who are also going through the same pain and trauma is that we need to take our time to do our own healing in this journey,” Hill said.
The site is home to the Woodland Cultural Centre, which preserves and promotes Indigenous history, art, language and culture of the Haudenosaunee people of the eastern Woodlands.
The agency’s “Save the Evidence” campaign is developing the building into a historic site with a definitive history of residential schools in Canada.
In memory of children who were a part of residential schools, the stairs to the building’s entrance in recent weeks have been covered with tiny shoes, stuffed animals and other items.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.