By Jean Turner
Recently, a group of 13 police and civilian employees from RCMP's Hamilton-Niagara Regional Detachment (HNRD) along with "O" Division's (Ontario) Commanding Officer, Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Strachan, spent the morning at Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford.
The Centre was established in 1972 under the direction of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians upon the closure of the Mohawk Institute Residential School.
The RCMP employees toured the museum, saw historical displays and were also given a virtual tour of the decommissioned residential school on site.
The employees heard first-hand accounts from survivors of the residential school, allowing them to better understand how important the Government of Canada's 2008 apology to former residential school students was.
"I feel like we have come from a time in our recent history where government and religious institutions collaborated nationwide in an effort to erase our indigenous cultures and languages, to today, where Canada is recognized as a world leader in ensuring that multi-culturalism is part of our national identity," said HNRD Commander Inspector Todd Gilmore. "For me, this tour was an important reminder of a path we should never follow again."
Between 1831 and 1970, it is estimated that 15,000 boys and girls between the ages of five and 16 years walked through the Mohawk Institute Residential School doors. The school was called "Mush Hole" by students because of the mushy, slimy porridge they would be given – often for all three meals.
The tour group heard stories of children who were plucked from their homes and families to attend residential school for ten months of the year. In some cases students who, for one reason or another, could not return home during the summer break, spent their entire childhood at the school. Police have been a part of injustices that have occurred in our history whether that be visible minorities, indigenous, women or lgbtq rights. The job of the police is to enforce law and unfortunately, that has put them at the front line of injustice
The group also learned that many RCMP police officers had, by virtue of their sworn duty to uphold the law of the day, collected and delivered children to the residential schools.
They were told that children were segregated from their siblings, forced to speak only English, attend Christian church, have their hair cut short and had their personal clothes and belongings taken away.
The children had very few toys, no books (other than school texts) and little form of recreation. Letters home were censored – if indeed they were sent at all. Next door was an apple orchard with beautiful fruit, but the children were forbidden from eating them.
"Based on everything I heard, it definitely seems as though students had no sense that someone cared about them and kind words were few and far between," observed Staff Sergeant Cathy McCrory. "I just cannot imagine my kids being taken away from me, living in an alien environment and then returning home void of everything I taught them."
The school day was cut in half so the children could work. Boys would work on the farm, milking cows (for milk that they could not drink) and other labour required. Girls would work inside, sewing, doing laundry and cooking for the staff and students. The visitors also heard heartbreaking accounts of physical and sexual abuse by teachers and clergy.
"This tour and the opportunity to hear and speak with survivors and their families was sobering. It was not until this visit that I understood the true scope of the horror that vulnerable children went through," A/Commr. Jennifer Strachan comments. "It is unimaginable to me and I am ashamed as a Canadian that this happened."
As Canada celebrates and honours the wonderful achievements and proud moments in its 150-year history, the Mohawk Institute is a reminder for all Canadians to remember, listen to and learn of the injustices and stories from the people who attended residential schools.
"What I came away with most as a result of this tour is the fact that these schools weren't in some distant place a long time ago, they were in our backyard during our lifetime," says Constable Craig Lickers. "It's difficult for me to listen to the survivor's stories, but I think it's so important for all Canadians to hear them so the healing process can begin."
Mohawk Institute residential school was one of 130 residential schools that operated in Canada. For more information on the Mohawk Institute, please visit the Woodland Cultural Centre.