To follow up my previous post, I telephoned Grand River today to talk to someone involved in the excavation of suspected graves at the former residential school. Knowing that many aboriginal people have extreme respect for the remains of their ancestors, I wanted to know what would make the Mohawk people there take such an extreme step.
I spoke to Bill Squire, one of the elders at the former Mohawk Institute residential school in Brantford, Ontario.
He said the elders acted because no one from government, the church or the police was willing to help them investigate what happened to former residents of the school who went missing. “They just put them down as missing or ‘tried to escape’,” he said.
The result has been “spiritual unrest” among the Mohawks, added Squire. Locals have reported hearing crying children at the site. The impact goes beyond the buried children and their families to First Nations right across Canada, he said.
The elders hope the work will produce some sort of “closure” for families and others affected by what happened at the school, added Squire: “Closure could bring about some sort of healing.”
The elder said there is no estimate of how many children might be buried on the site, but added that based on historical death rates it is estimated that 50,000 aboriginal children went missing from Canada’s residential school over the years.
He acknowledged that local Mohawks were split over the excavation, some opposing it because “it is not our way to disturb these sites”. But Squire said the elders also have a “spiritual responsibility” to those buried there. “If we can help these people, we’re willing to take a chance.”
He added that the Grand River First Nation council were fully supportive but now “are taking a very cautious stance”. I called their office but was told no one there could talk to me.
The Canadian government has apologised publicly for the residential school system. It also established a truth and reconciliation commission to inform the public about what happened at the more than 100 residential schools. Its website says the commission supports the Missing Children Research Project.
Squire said the Mohawks have seen no signs that the commission is interested in listening to their concerns but added “maybe we should talk to them”.
He added that the elders plan also to “bring Canada and the (Anglican) Church to some sort of justice”. Work at the former residential school is being carried out by an organisation called the International Tribunal into Crimes of Church and State, which also has arranged forensics experts and other support, Squire said.
The Mohawks are “sending an appeal to the world to help, to hear our stories”, added the elder.