New school bus raises prestige and importance of Mohawk students

TYENDINAGA MOHAWK TERRITORY – The smiles on a chilly Monday morning outside the Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na (TTO) Language and Cultural Centre were so warm, they could have melted away all of the weekend’s latest snowfall.

In the parking lot, huddled around a shiny new school bus, young students, officials and others congregated as the TTO unveiled its new ride, the first time it could claim such a distinction.

The bright sun seemed a little brighter as Callie Hill, the TTO’s executive director, introduced the centre’s first fully dedicated school bus, nearly a quarter century after its formation.

“Today's an important day and an important milestone in TTO's ongoing journey,” Hill said before the bus took its maiden voyage. “We were founded in 2000 by a group of concerned community members who wanted to revitalize Mohawk language and culture. And as we marked 23 years of work, we have come a long way. Today TTO has developed and delivers accredited and community-based Mohawk language programs. We have developed digital and book resources to help reach a new generation. In May, we begin a new program that will certify Indigenous teachers for Ontario classrooms through new partnership with Queen’s University and we are working towards a CRTC licensed radio station, a community radio station whose goal will be to revitalize language within the community as well.”

On this day, however, it was all about TTO’s $65,000 bus, which will deliver the school’s 19 students daily going forward.

“Through these programs, children as young as age three and up to 10 are receiving instruction and care in their language, in their culture, and in an environment that cherishes and celebrates Onkwehonwenéha, our ways of being in the world,” Hill said. “And as excellent as these learning environments are, we’re always seeking ways to improve the experience for our kids and their parents. We are pleased to celebrate these new additions to the TTO family and thank the many generous donors who have made this dream a reality.”

The 28-passenger Ford E-450 was purchased from Leeds Transit and was received by TTO in February 2023. It will be used to bring school-aged kids to and from TTO’s school programs and, subject to availability, will support cultural programming in the community.

Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte Councillor Josh Hill spoke of the importance of accessibility and the emphasis the band council has put on it.

“Today's cool because we recently renewed our strategic plan for language in our community at the council table and one of the key components was accessibility and having programming and learning accessible and this is a pretty good example of accessibility,” Hill said.

Afterward, Josh Hill spoke of council’s commitment to its longterm strategic plan.

“I think we we've got the benefit of having a strategic plan in place the last five years and for the five years moving forward,” Hill said, referring to council’s plan, which was facilitated along with Dr. Jeremy Green from Six Nations. “Like anything else, you plan your work and work your plan and these are steps in that big plan,” Hill said.

Josh Hill praised the work TTO has been doing to restore Mohawk culture and language.

“We can have great programming but we also need people to be able to access that programming,” he said. “It's a chance for people at different stages in their life to have an opportunity to immerse themselves (into our language and) have access to something that we all should have,” he said. “We want to bring language outside of the classroom and make it more a part of everyday life because that's how languages flourish.”

The longtime councillor spoke with emotion as he talked about the importance of keeping the Mohawk language alive and well.

“It always pulls at my heartstrings when I see those little ones,” Josh Hill said, referring to the school kids who delivered Ohèn:ton Karihwatéhkwen (The Thanksgiving Address) before the ceremony began. “I’m 35 years old and it’s like ‘If these little guys can do it, I want to, too, I need to,’ ” he said. “I’ve got a little nephew now that I'm sure will be speaking Mohawk if my sister has it her way and I want to be able to communicate with him in whichever language he wants to. It challenges me and I think it’s a challenge to all of us to learn more.”

Callie Hill, meanwhile, paid tribute to MBQ council, who matched TTO’s fundraising total of $65,000.

“We had fundraised $65,000 and council gave us $65,000,” Callie Hill said. “The extra money will go to help operating costs because we need to pay for salaries for the drivers, gas and maintenance,” she said.

The children had previously been picked up by various buses servicing Quinte Mohawk School. During the pandemic, parents drove their children to school when lockdown restrictions permitted.

“This shows the children how important they are and I think them having their own bus, and not having to go and switch and whatever, it just raises the prestige and the importance of what they're doing,” Callie Hill said.

Jan Murphy, Local Journalism Initiative, Belleville Intelligencer