Some survivors of Ontario's former residential school system skeptical of plan to identify unmarked burial sites

Members of Brantford's Indigenous community attend an announcement by the Ontario government Tuesday on identifying unmarked grave sites at former residential schools. (CTV News Toronto/Beth Macdonell)

Some survivors of the residential school system in Ontario are reacting to the provincial government’s announcement of $10 million to support the search for unmarked burial sites with caution and skepticism.

The former Anglican Church-run Mohawk Institute in Brantford operated for 142 years. There are survivors who have heard stories of possible burial grounds on the site or surrounding lands for decades.

Ewehewi, 65, attended the school, arriving when she was 10 years old, along with three other siblings. She said she and her sister were split up from her brothers as the school kept girls and boys separate from each other.

Ewehewi believes unknown children could be buried in the area.

“We have Crees from Quebec, we have Objiways from northern Ontario. We have Oji-Cree from way up in Northern Ontario,” she said, while describing the conditions at the school.

She recalled sleeping in bunk beds in the junior dorm.

“At night time, you could hear the girls crying, crying at nighttime, but you can’t get out of your bed to go and console them,” she said. “We’d get in trouble if we ever got out of our beds.”

She also carries the trauma of the school’s impact for generations. Her grandmother also attended the school in 1917. Five aunts and uncles were also brought to the school.

Ewehewi hopes through discovering the truth, there is greater understanding and healing.

Kahehti:io’s father attended the school from the time he was four to 16. She said three of her sisters also attended the school. Her aunt passed away at the Brantford facility following an influenza outbreak.

After listening to her father’s stories over the years, she decided to help survivors of former residential schools and expressed why it was important for her to be at the announcement.

“Because we are still suffering. We haven’t stopped suffering,” she said shortly after the event. “It’s more than important. It’s part of my life.”

The $10 million investment over three years from Queen’s Park comes in addition to $27 million previously set aside by Ottawa to support the identification of possible burial grounds across the country.

The funding comes after the remains of 215 children in Kamloops, B.C. were uncovered earlier this spring.

“What they talked about today were things I’ve heard many times. When they started the Truth and Reconciliation Commission I heard these same remarks and comments. I guess what I’m waiting for is the action to really do this,” Kahehti:io said.

“When we start opening this up all across Canada I think we are going to be surprised we’re going to be surprised, we’re going to be shocked there are many, many more children.” 

Karonyahanron attended the Brantford school for two years. She said she was initially happy to attend the school, but the feeling didn’t last.

“I have pictures standing here that I am happy here but that’s not how it ended up being,” she said after the announcement Tuesday.

“I was severely beaten and then my sister came here and she was severely neglected and she was a lot younger.”

She too is wary of what the money and the announcement will do in the long run.

“I’ve heard promises so many times. What do I believe? What about the promises?” she said.

Six Nations of the Grand River is about a 20 minute drive from the former school.

Chief Mark Hill told CTV News Toronto that while the money and a commitment is a start, he also understands the skepticism from survivors.

“We have 18 schools in the province. 18 divided by 10 million doesn’t leave a lot,’ said Hill.

Hill said roughly 350 acres of land has been identified around the former school in Brantford to search.

“We see the development all around these areas and as we look to do this search, we know it’s going to get costly.”

Hill also spoke about the important need for mental health supports to continue through the process.