Six Nations Survivors’ Secretariat finds double the number of child deaths at former Mohawk Institute Residential School

By Bree Duwyn

Writer

Document collection and research by the Survivors’ Secretariat, in partnership with Know History, reveals more than double the number of child deaths at the former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School than originally released by the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).

On Wednesday (Aug. 31), the Survivors’ Secretariat welcomed members of the Six Nations community and guests to a Year in Review event.

In front of a new location, the Survivors’ Secretariat introduced the new Secretariat Lead, Laura Arndt, and addressed research, document collection, ground search, and community accountability and advocacy efforts.

“I am honoured and humbled to join the Survivors’ Secretariat and lead the work of truth finding into what happened at the Mohawk Institute,” said Arndt.

Know History’s historical services guiding the Secretariat’s document collection and records research found 97 children died while attending the former Mohawk Institute.

Of those children, 16 remain unidentified, according to historical researcher Beth Sollis.

“The 16 unidentified children, we are aware they passed away as students, but we don’t have any names,” said Sollis. “Sometimes we do have specifics but it might just say ‘this occurrence happened to this student’ but not provide a name or details like an age or the community they came from. That’s what we’re hoping to figure out.”

Know History has also identified 4,581 names of children who attended the former residential school and 725 names of people who worked at the institute in varying capacities.

They are a professional historical research firm that has been working with First Nations, Inuit and Metis for more than a decade to document and share their history.

According to Sollis, Know History has been supporting the Survivors’ Secretariat for the past nine months, reaching out to relevant institutes to uncover documents and digitizing, reviewing and organizing records.

To date, 6,705 records have been accessed, with 2,526 of those documents coming from the NCTR, and the remainder located by the Know History team through archival research.

“We take this responsibility very seriously,” said Ryan Shackleton, Know History’s CEO in a Secretariat media release. “The work is difficult, and accessing the documents held by colonial institutions can be challenging, but it is worth the effort to ensure that the story is told from the Survivors’ perspective.”

Before the list of names and records can be released, the Secretariat must determine proper protocols of informing families and communities.

The Survivors’ Secretariat was launched by Six Nations survivors in July 2021, who welcomed Kimberly Murray as their Executive Oversight Lead to help begin the process of finding missing and unmarked burials at the former Mohawk Institute.

Now, Arndt has assumed the role of Secretariat Lead in Murray’s place. Following the Year in Review presentation, she said that she thanks Murray for the opportunity.

“She invited me into this work a year ago, and a year later she’s moved into the (independent special) interlocutor role,” said Arndt. “I’m working on some of the most important work of my life and I’d like to thank her for that.”

Arndt said that the transition from Chief Operating Officer to Secretariat Lead felt very natural.

“The understanding of how to bring people together is a big part of my work…” she said. “It’s my job to create the conditions for community conversation.”

Arndt said that residential school survivors are trying to get answers for families and communities, so they may be brought back together.

“The survivors want an investigation, research into the documents and records, and they want an understanding of what happened at that school.”

She said that how the process is done is more important than the outcome, allowing the survivors to be central and make the decisions.

“We, who are a part of the Secretariat, take their lead. They’re our guardians and it’s our job to make sure the work of the guardians is completed,” said Arndt.

Diane Hill, a survivor of the former Mohawk Institute and a Secretariat board member, said she survived her time at the residential school in order to do the important work of the Survivors’ Secretariat.

“How did I survive? How did a seven-year-old child survive that, when thousands didn’t?”

Hill said that she was meant to bring the children who lost their lives forward, and to bring forth life as a Haudenosaunee woman.

She wants to know why the records and documents have not been released.

Hill said that if the records were to be released, there would be no need to search through archives and search the grounds surrounding the former institute.

As of August 23, 2022, the Secretariat has completed Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), scanning of 387 10×10 metre grids.

These efforts were supported by the youth of the Reclaiming Our Role – Youth Supporting Survivors Program.

The summer program, according to Arndt, was created to foster a community-focused environment for young people to reclaim their sacred role and helpers to the survivors of the former Mohawk Institute.

The youth spent the summer leading the way in ground search efforts and engaged in conversations with survivors, cultural monitors, the human rights monitor and police throughout the program.

“My father attended the Mohawk Institute up until its final years of operation,” said Angelina Bomberry on the Survivors’ Secretariat social media. “I wanted to be a part of this program to help my family and community recover and heal from their experiences but also be a part of the ground search using GPR technology and support other communities in the future.”

She said she has a responsibility to provide support towards her family, community and people in any way she can.

The grids that have been searched represent around 1.5 per cent of the total area that must be completed.

With the accumulated data, the Survivors’ Secretariat began widening their focus and are working with people in the geophysics community to map out a path forward to interpret the data collected while continuing to scan additional areas at the former Mohawk Institute, according to the media release.

The Secretariat has purchased three GPR machines and the searches are only conducted between the months of May and November, subject to dry weather conditions. The City of Brantford has also provided lidar scans of the associated grounds.

Recently, the Secretariat has worked with Brantford to urge the provincial and federal government, along with the Anglican and Catholic Church, to release all records pertaining to residential schools.

The Notice of Motion was unanimously passed by Brantford City Council at a special meeting held May 17, 2022 in accordance with the release of all records  documenting the former Mohawk Institute’s operation from 1831 to 1970.

The resolution has since been supported by Wainfleet and Shuniah municipalities.

Mayor Kevin Davis of the City of Brantford attended the Year in Review event, saying that by becoming involved with the Survivors’ Secretariat, Brantford could support their efforts.

“I think it was also important to get involved to help my community understand what’s happening, why it’s happening within our city,” he said about the former Mohawk Institute being located in Brantford. “It’s hard to accept something unless you understand why it’s happening and what it involves.”

Mayor Davis said that with the more knowledge one has, the better one can help.

Sherlene Bomberry, a Secretariat board member, said that the Secretariat has secured $10.4 million in funding over three years from the federal government and $1.3 million over three years from Ontario.

“This represents one-third of the requested funding needed to search over 600 acres and to review hundreds of thousands of documents associated with the 136-year legacy of the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School,” she said.

The initial request for funding was framed in a three-year term but it is anticipated that the project will take significantly longer to cover the size of the former property, the length of the school’s operation and resources available.

 

 

 

 

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