Planting trees at a former boarding school is a ‘big step’ to ‘get my power back’, says survivor

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

When Roberta Hill sees the field of green grass in front of the old Mohawk Institute boarding school, she says she thinks of the apple orchard that once stood there – and how much, as a student, she wanted to taste some of the apples that were forbidden to her and the other students.

“I just crawled on my stomach…I grabbed an apple, crawled back and ate it behind that tree and it was the most delicious apple you’ve ever eaten,” Hill told reporters in Brantford, Ont., on Tuesday.

It was a field full of food tended by starving children in front of the school where they were being abused.

Hill thought no one saw her take an apple, but minutes later said staff members found her and beat her.

“For me, I didn’t care how much they punished me, the apple was worth it,” Hill said.

On Tuesday, Hill and other survivors were able to reap the fruits of their labor.

Geronimo Henry (center), a survivor of the former Mohawk Institute residential school, plants a Golden Delicious apple tree in the field in front of the former residential school alongside Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, May 24. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Hill, along with other survivors, students from Everlasting Tree School and government officials, including Canada’s Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, participated in a tree-planting ceremony.

The ten delicious golden apple trees planted symbolize the past, beauty, food and, among other things, the government’s process of assimilation, as Six Nations elected leader Mark Hill said the word apple was among the first words English taught at boarding school.

Before the trees were planted, the students recited a poem in the Mohawk language and sang sacred songs about the seeds to thank the Creator for the apple trees.

After that, survivors, children and government officials dug up the ground with shovels and bare hands before planting the trees as the sun shone on them and a light breeze blew.

“I’m very grateful for today,” Sherlene Bomberry, another residential school survivor, told CBC Hamilton after planting one of the trees.

She said Tuesday was a “big step” towards healing and “reclaiming my power”.

The tree-planting ceremony took place nearly a year after preliminary information revealed by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation obtained by ground-penetrating radar showed that there may be up to 215 unmarked child burial sites near school in Kamloops, BC

“I remember when this happened last year, how my body was so angry and I just cried and cried,” Bomberry said.

The ceremony also took place as the field search for potential unmarked graves at the former Mohawk Institute — inspired by research from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation — resumed.

Survivors halted their search efforts during the winter months due to snow.

Children help plant an apple tree in front of the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., on Tuesday. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The Mohawk Institute, also known as Mush Hole because of the food the students were forced to eat, was one of the oldest and oldest residential schools in the country. It operated for 136 years.

About 15,000 students attended, and records show 54 deaths at the school.

It can take years to excavate the entire property, which is around 200 hectares.

Survivors say the City of Brantford recently granted them access to all documents it holds regarding residential schools and called on all levels of government to release all documents to survivors. Hamilton City Council also backed Brantford’s appeal on Wednesday.

The former boarding school is now the Woodland Cultural Center, which serves as a museum and provides education about the history of the institute. It will undergo renovations over the next two years now that $24 million has been raised and is expected to fully open in late 2024.

Survivors also hope to turn the front of the property into Mohawk Village Memorial Park, which would include trails, ponds, a playground, gardens and a fire pit, among other things.

Minister won’t say if more money is coming

Minister Miller said hearing the experiences of survivors was difficult but important to hear as someone in a position of power. Survivors thanked Miller for attending the ceremony.

“There is a lot of healing to be done in communities and a need for both short-term investments to uncover a very painful truth in Canada’s history, but also medium- and long-term solutions to not reproduce the model of taking children away from their families,” Miler said.

“There’s a continuous thread I’ve heard from my visits to half a dozen boarding schools…one of hope.”

The Survivors Secretariat, which is leading the field research, initially asked Ottawa for $24 million over three years to do the research, but the government only offered $10,259,975 over three years.

Asked by CBC whether the federal government would offer more money to continue field research and establish the memorial park, Miller said he would not comment publicly, but said he was working with “all levels of government to ensure this is properly honoured”. .”

A sign indicating the future Mohawk Village Memorial Park is in front of the former Mohawk Institute. Survivors say they want money to bring the image to life and help reclaim the former boarding school site. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Miller told reporters that the government continues to release documents to aid field research and archival efforts related to residential schools.

He acknowledged that there was still a lot of work to be done not only to hand over the documents, but also to understand the trauma they contained.

Survivors who spoke to CBC also spoke about the Indian Day School Settlementclaiming that the deadline for submitting a claim – July 13 – should be extended.

The class action settlement offers former residential school students between $10,000 and $200,000 in compensation depending on how they were abused.

Miller said that while the process is not in the hands of the government, he said he was “looking into what options there are with our lawyers to support this process.”

Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.

A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.