Key to the heritage of the Mohawk Institute Residential School are the following:
- It is one of a few residential schools in existence
- It is the longest running school in Canada
- It had a key role in the attempt to assimilate indigenous languages and cultures
- Restoring the building meets several of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Below you will find more details about why this building is important to our heritage.
The Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School is a stirring example of a dark period in Canadian history that sought to destroy Indigenous cultures. The school operated in Brantford, Ontario from 1828 as a Mechanic’s/day school within the Mohawk Village. From 1934 to 1970 it was a boarding school for First Nations children from Six Nations and other communities throughout Ontario and Quebec. The removal of thousands of First Nations children from their homes and placing them in such institutions served as a key tool in the effort to assimilate them into European Christian society – it effectively severed the continuity of culture from parent to child. After closing in 1970, it reopened in 1972 as the Woodland Cultural Centre, a non-profit organization that serves to preserve and promote First Nations culture and heritage. As one of only a handful of residential school buildings left still standing in Canada, the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School is a physical reminder of the legacy of assimilation imposed upon First Nations children in Canada.
Every year, more than 15,000 people visit the Mohawk Institute as part of the Woodland Cultural Centre. Visitors come to see not only what was once the longest-running residential school in Canada, but they also experience the stories the building holds. The school building has been providing in-depth and historically significant insight into the Residential School System for the past decade.
In 1972 the Woodland Cultural Centre was established by an Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (Six Nations and others). The Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School Building is part of the Woodland Cultural Centre. It is a ten acre site residing on the Six Nations Territory within the geographical boundary of the city of Brantford, Ontario. It is governed by the three support communities of Wahta Mohawks, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, and Six Nations of the Grand River.
Need for Restoration
In 2013 after devastating water leaks from the roof, the Woodland Cultural Centre (lessees of the site) recommended to Six Nations Elected Council a community consultation is in order on whether to save the aging Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School, or not. As Woodland is the tenant of the site, we wanted to hear from Survivors, intergenerational family members and the overall community how they felt moving forward. Overwhelmingly, 95% of respondents recommended to save the building. In 2014, the Save the Evidence capital campaign to restore the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School was launched.
In announcing the capital campaign, Six Nations Elected Chief G. Ava Hill also issued a challenge to other political bodies: match Six Nations Elected Council’s seed money of $220,000.00. At that time, the Six Nations Elected Council, by way of motion, chose to make the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School the first Six Nations national historic site. In 2015, the Province of Ontario announced $10 million over the next three years to go towards the repairs of the building.
The roof has been repaired and the front facade has been restored. However, the interior of the school needs numerous repairs before it can be an adequate centre for education. With renovations underway on such a historical and important building there are precautions that need to be made to ensure the safety and preservation of historical documents and artifacts remain undamaged. The Woodland Cultural Centre is working with heritage firms that specialize in historical preservation, so all precautions are being made. Artifacts found inside the school and on the grounds surrounding it show how children at the school found ways to interact with one another even though it was often forbidden. The children would scratch their names on some of the building’s exterior bricks and they would also climb in and around some of the buildings walls that lead to small cubbyholes after curfew to spend time together. It’s special little human-interest elements like these that the centre is going to make sure remain preserved.
The Save The Evidence fundraising campaign is an initiative of the Woodland Cultural Centre and the Six Nations Elected Council. The goal is to raise the necessary funds for repairs and renovations to ensure the physical evidence of the dark history of Residential Schools in Canada is never forgotten. The current phase of repairs requires an additional $12.5 million, and another $5 million still needs to be raised towards perpetual care.
The school is a reminder of the legacy of the residential schools in Canada and it is one of a handful in existence, which makes its restoration so critical. The building is an excellent example of a neoclassical style, with a central verandah supported by two-storey-tall Doric columns. Once the children were taken inside, they were divided into the separate wings for girls and boys. One resident reported that she went in with her three brothers and sisters and never saw her brothers in the school.
After the fires of 1903, the Mohawk Institute was rebuilt in 1904, the current imposing building. It is set well back from the street which emphasizes the separation that existed between the residents and the community. “The new building was one of the earliest examples of a second-generation residential school, the most obvious feature of which was a heavier massing that departed from the residential scale of the first generation. Built in a Neoclassical style with the new Mohawk Institute seemed designed to lend legitimacy to the increasingly harsh conditions and growing absurdity within.” (Magdalena Milosz, 2015 “Don’t Let Fear Take Over”: The Space and Memory of Indian Residential Schools. MA Thesis, University of Waterloo, http://hdl.handle.net/10012/9066/.
Thus, the most critical heritage aspect is the need to understand, through the structure and the artifacts, the devastating impact of residential schools in Canada. By preserving these reprehensible heritage features, we can understand that legacy. We can also meet numerous references to education about the residential schools in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action.
Many thanks to Paula Whitlow, Executive Director of the Woodland Cultural Centre