A brighter future for the Mohawk Institute in Brantford is assured after the Woodland Cultural Centre raised $23.5 million to convert the former residential school into an interpretive centre.
“Six years ago, when we started the campaign, we thought it would take us a lot longer to reach that goal,” Woodland executive director Janis Monture told The Spectator.
“So the fact that we were able to hit it within six years is pretty monumental, especially during COVID, which made fundraising even more difficult as there were so many other needs.”
The Save the Evidence campaign launched in the wake of extensive flooding in 2013 that forced a conversation over the facility’s future.
Survivors and Six Nations members decided to restore the 36,000-square-foot building, one of the few former residential schools still standing in Canada, so the school and its stories would not be lost to history.
Monture said support came in the form of donations large and small, from governments and non-profit groups to local businesses and hundreds of individuals.
Contributions increased “tenfold” after the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., in May 2021, which brought global media attention to the Mohawk Institute and Woodland’s work to preserve Indigenous culture and languages.
“We actually weren’t promoting (the Save the Evidence campaign) ourselves during that time. We didn’t think it was appropriate,” Monture said.
But people still reached out in droves to learn more about residential schools and find ways to help.
“When Kamloops happened, it was very shocking for many people in this country,” Monture said. “I think (donating to Woodland) was their way of trying to do what they could.”
She said many donors learned about Woodland from “allies and partners and supporters” who spread the word about the Save the Evidence campaign.
“For me, it was incredibly overwhelming with the support that was coming in, because we didn’t expect that,” she said. “Other people were giving their voice to us.”
Monture said it was especially meaningful to have Six Nations band members and businesses support Woodland’s mission.
“That was another one where we were completely humbled. They were doing their own fundraisers through their own businesses and organizations, and those were some of our largest private donations,” she said.
“I think with everything that’s happening, they’re (saying) it’s really important that this place remains and people will be able to tour it.”
With the needed funds now in hand — including a $9.4-million federal-provincial infrastructure grant approved last summer — Phase 3 of the four-phase construction project can commence in earnest.
This phase includes preserving the school’s brickwork — and the names and messages carved on the walls by former students — as well as adding accessibility features, replacing windows, completing HVAC and mechanical work, and paving the parking lot and long driveway.
At its busiest, 185 Indigenous youth from Six Nations and other reserves in Ontario and Quebec lived at the Mohawk Institute, which was run by the Anglican church and closed in 1970. The current building dates to 1904, after the school built in 1828 and its successor both burned down.
When renovations are complete, visitors can tour the building and learn what happened inside Canada’s residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.
Woodland’s Indigenous language revitalization department and research library will also be housed inside the former school “to speak about the importance of language and culture, which was taken away from our people during this era of residential schools,” Monture said.
“So the work that we’re doing right now is really to do the exact opposite.”
The plan was to open the new centre in late 2024, but Monture said that timeline is less certain now as the renovations must take place around ongoing efforts to search the grounds for possible remains of Indigenous youth who died at the institute.
The ground search is expected to resume this spring.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator