We Are The Witnesses

How a group of Survivors are working to uncover and share the truth about what happened at the Mohawk Institute

In May 2021, when the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced that they had confirmed the presence of over 200 unmarked burials of children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Indigenous people across Turtle Island took action. At Six Nations of the Grand River, a group of Survivors created a new organization to direct and support the Sacred work of searching the grounds of the Mohawk Institute, the longest-running Indian Residential School in Canada.

At the end of July, the Survivors called on police to initiate a criminal investigation in connection with the search for unmarked burials, and the Six Nations of the Grand River Elected Council provided $1 million in interim funding so the work could begin. The Survivors’ Secretariat was born.

At its core, the Secretariat is a Survivor-led, community-involved organization. The experience, knowledge and insight of Survivors guide the Secretariat’s actions, processes and decisions.

The Secretariat’s mandate is to:

  • Gather Statements from Survivors, their families and community members.
  • Collect records from all entities that have information relating to the Mohawk Institute.
  • Support commemoration activities.
  • Coordinate the processes and protocols in relation to the ground search.

The Secretariat’s mandate is both to search and recover missing children and unmarked burials and to collect every child’s residential school records that are held in church and government archives.

In August, Survivors hired Kimberly Murray as the Executive Oversight Lead to assist them in establishing the Secretariat. In the summer of 2021, the Secretariat purchased a new ground-penetrating radar machine and updated a second machine that was already in the possession of Six Nations’ environment office.

Around the same time, a special Task Force was formed, which is led by Six Nations Police, and includes the Brantford Police and the Ontario Provincial Police. The Task Force works closely with the Office of the Chief Coroner and other experts and is being monitored by Dr. Beverly Jacobs, as the Indigenous Human Rights Monitor. The role of the Task Force is to assist in identifying any children found in unmarked burials and to determine whether charges should be laid in relation to their deaths. Cultural Monitors Peter Schuler and Wendy Hill work to ensure that Indigenous cultural and spiritual protocols and ceremonies are respected by the Task Force during their investigation.

In October, the Task Force received its first case in connection with the recovery of remains of a young person found near the former Mohawk Institute. The unmarked burial is believed to be of a person younger than 14 years old.

In the fall of 2021, ground penetrating radar training commenced for community members. On November 9, the first ground search training exercise took place. “This is heavy work that needs to be done. As Survivors, we take comfort in knowing that this Sacred work is being done in a good way, with our community members’ participation,” Survivor Sherlene Bomberry said in a media interview at the time.

Survivor Group from left to right: Dawn Hill, Marilyn Morley, Sherlene Bomberry, Diane Hill, Roland Martin, Roberta Hill, and John Elliot. Absent: Geronimo Henry, Blanche Hill-Easton, Alfred (Lonnie) Johnson, Darlene Laforme, Tony Bomberry

It will take more than two years to search all of the 500+ acres of land associated with the Mohawk Institute. Survivors are directing which areas should be searched and in what order.

Community members and the Task Force have been trained in the use of ground-penetrating radar equipment and are the primary searchers. The Secretariat is also among the first communities to use LiDAR in the search for unmarked burials — a powerful 3D laser scanning process that yields three dimensional images of the earth’s surface to detect disturbed soil.

Due to the courage and perseverance of Survivors, the Secretariat has accomplished a great deal in a short period of time, including the holding of a press conference at the Woodland Cultural Centre on November 9, 2021. The event generated press coverage locally, regionally, nationally, and around the world.

There is still much to be done. We need the wisdom, experience and knowledge of as many Survivors as possible. We invite everyone, with any information to share, to contact the Police Task Force, toll-free at 1-888-523-8587.

Niá:wen ki' wáhi