By Donna Kell, APR (photos by Donna Kell and Jodi Ball)
You can’t enter this house without being profoundly changed.
We are at the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., and it’s October 2016. A group of 14 engagement experts from cities and towns around Lake Ontario are joined by a retired policy advisor from the province for this tour.
We have the good fortune to be led by tour guide Kaley Reuben and Dawn Hill, a former resident of the school who once answered to the No. 54.
“We were all given numbers,” Dawn, a retired teacher, tells our group from the Great Lakes Chapter of IAP2. “We were not allowed to use our names.”
Dawn shares stories of children who were stolen from the streets and brought to this residential home. She tells us of secret wall places in the building where toys and candy were hidden by the children who weren’t given or allowed these small pleasures.
We see photos of what appear to be math equations, like 22 + 51. But they are not math equations. They are children expressing which boy or girl they like, hiding that information in a wall instead of scratching it on a picnic table.
Each room in this building from the 1800s has a different feel and a different memory. The building operated as a residential school from 1831 to 1970, with 15,000 children living here during that time.
Today’s library and classroom were once the girls’ and boys’ dormitories. Here we learn about the history of the house and the role of the Anglican Church in the treatment of children. The former policy advisor who joined our group for the tour describes what happened here historically as “ethnic cleansing.”
Next, we head to the basement level. By the quiet of Kaley and Dawn, who guide us, we can tell something important—and very bad—happened here.
We walk slowly, as a group, down the stairs to the boiler room. Kaley shares that children were brought here to be sexually abused. Why here? You couldn’t hear their screams over the noise of the boiler.
We turn a corner from the boiler room and our guide stands beside a door. Inside is a dark closet, no hangers or bars inside. This is where children were locked for days at a time when they misbehaved. A common offense was running away from the school.
Our last stop is the dining hall and playroom. Dawn says this was not a typical playroom. It was often unsupervised, and was a space where children would re-enact the abuse shown to them. They hit each other, and called each other names. This is what they knew.
There are some bright spots to the history. Neighbours would give the children Halloween candy or small gifts that the student hid in the school walls. And there was time outside.
Our afternoon ends with a tour of Woodland Cultural Centre Museum. We see the rich history of our First Nations People, the successes, the struggles and the relationships with European settlers. We see the history of the land and its people, items that were traded and First Nations people who became famous for their works.
As IAP2 practitioners, we want to engage with the people we serve in different communities. We want to know what motivates them, and what their needs are.
As we say goodbye and thank our hosts, we realize that we have paid $13 for a tour and a museum visit, but have received enormous value and an entirely new perspective.
The Mohawk Institute Residential School closed in November for reconstruction.
For more information about the Woodland Cultural Centre, or to donate to the Save the Evidence campaign, visit www.woodland_centre.on.ca.