WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
At 71 years old, Dawn Hill has returned to the residential school in Brantford, Ont., where she was sent as a seven-year-old child. She sits down in a large empty room and waves her hand about a few times in silence, as if pulling the memories from the air.
"It was late at night. It was really dark in here," she said. "And this whole room was filled with bunk beds all the way around, over to the other side, with about 60 kids."
Hill had been sent to the Anglican-run Mohawk Institute Residential School in 1957 along with her younger sister Roberta, who was just six at the time, after their father passed away. She was one of 15,000 children who were required to go to the school before it closed in 1972, after 140 years of operation.
Today, the former residential school has been renamed the Woodland Cultural Centre and is dedicated to preserving Indigenous history. But when Hill was there, it was an institution designed to erase that same culture from the children who walked through its doors.
Their first night, the Hill sisters were assigned different bunks in the sprawling dormitory.
"My sister Roberta was kind of frightened and she said, 'can I come sleep with you?'" Hill remembered. "I said sure, and she crawled in bed with me. And we kind of looked around, talked a little bit about where we were and kind of being both a little afraid."
WATCH | Dawn Hill describes one of many experiences of physical abuse at the Mohawk Institute Residential School:
What Hill didn't know was that there were consequences for sharing a bed.
"We got the strap for the first time in our lives, and we had welts from the crook of your arm down to your fingertips," she said.
"How could you strap a little six-year-old or a seven-year-old that harshly?" she said.
Hill has followed the news of the recent discoveries of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada, and she says she wouldn't be surprised if remains were found where she was forced to go to school as well.
"I think it's important to search, in light of all of the things going across Canada," Hill said. "I don't think one residential school was too much different from another."
Chief Mark Hill of Six Nations of the Grand River says he won't stop until there is a thorough and complete search done of the former Mohawk Institute Residential school.
"Some people are already sold on the fact that there are remains to be found in this area, just based upon what survivors have said and been telling us for quite some time," he said.
While some sections of the Brantford site have been searched over the past 10 years and no human remains found, Chief Hill says the work is not conclusive. He recently wrote an open letter calling on the federal government to fund the use of ground-penetrating radar technology to search the grounds.
"Our focus is to look at the surrounding areas, and to complete searches prioritizing areas based upon the stories and experiences that we've heard from the survivors," Hill said, adding that survivors should be consulted as part of the process.
"To be in a position where I can now fight for justice for each of those children and their families, that's exactly what I'm going to do," he said.
Children as numbers
On her first morning at the Mohawk Institute, Dawn Hill learned who she was inside the institution.
"They didn't call me by Dawn. My number was 54, my sister was 34. So if they wanted to talk to me, they'd say, 'number 54 come here.'
"It became a very lonely place, because nobody really hugged you, nobody said you did anything really well."
Hill says she tried her best to do her school work, but many of the teachers were cruel.
"I remember I was writing one time in class and I was trying to do cursive writing," Hill said. The teacher was walking up and down the aisles, "and she comes along and whacks me right across the knuckles with the pointer. I don't know what she was expecting, because I couldn't even hold the darn pencil after that, never mind write," said Hill.
"Our whole environment here and at school was one of violence."
Hill spent four years of her childhood at the institution.
'They wanted to assimilate us'
Today, the front steps of the old Mohawk Institute have been transformed into a spontaneous memorial to honour the remains of children found buried on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada.
On a recent afternoon, Janis Monture spent a few moments staring at the children's moccasins, and the shoes and toys people have left behind.
"I think of all the children who attended the school," she said, "but it's also a way for us to remember, most of all, what these schools stood for."
Monture is an historian and the executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre that now occupies the site of the former residential school building.
"The residential school system in Canada was definitely, at the end of the day, to kill the Indian in the child. They wanted to assimilate us into Canadian society," Monture said.
"But what these institutions did was more than just take away our language and culture. They did atrocities that no child should ever have to experience in their lifetime."
WATCH | Janis Monture is emotional as she describes her frustration over how long it has taken the general public to start to care about what happened in residential schools:
Monture, and other community members from nearby Six Nations, have spent years transforming the former residential school into a place that does exactly the opposite of what it was originally intended to do.
Inside the walls of the old school today, they teach and promote Indigenous languages and culture.
On the grounds there's a museum, and the cultural centre runs educational programs, tours and workshops for the public — especially school groups.
"Purposely, our language department is on the second floor [where the residential school children used to sleep], our research library is on the first floor," Monture said.
"And the reason we do that is so that those walls can hear a little, they can hear us speak, because that was a huge piece that they took away. For us to speak our language in these walls is our statement of saying 'you didn't win.'"
Monture also wants answers as to whether there are human remains on the land around the former Mohawk Institute Residential School.
She says Canadians have been reluctant to believe what really happened at these institutions.
"I've been working here since 2003 and we've never had this much attention," Monture said.
"Why did it take a mass grave to prove what our communities have been saying for years about these places? It's frustrating. Our voices just weren't heard."
Residential school legacy
"I call myself an inmate, a survivor, something like that," said Dawn Hill, who was required to go to the Mohawk Institute Residential School for four years, from age seven until she was 11.
WATCH | Dawn Hill describes having to fight other children at the Mohawk Institute Residential School:
All these years later, she wants Canadians to know the price she and her sister Roberta paid for the time they spent at the residential school.
"My sister, she was molested by the minister," Hill said, referring to an Anglican priest who was the principal of the school.
Hill cries as she explains how it took her sister Roberta almost 50 years to talk openly about her sexual assault — and how as a little girl she tried to cope.
"He was the minister, we saw him every Sunday," said Hill.
"That first Sunday afterwards, [Roberta] said she was getting ready for church and she was so afraid that her nose started bleeding. I think it was the pressure of that — she was just so upset and everything. Her nose started to bleed and it wouldn't stop, so they didn't make her go to church that day. And then the following Sunday she knew she was supposed to go again, so she started punching herself in the nose to make her nose bleed so she wouldn't have to go.
"I think it really changed her," Hill said. "She grew up to be a fighter."
Dawn Hill grew up to be a teacher. She has a daughter and grandchildren of her own. And seated in the old dormitory on the second floor of the residential school and remembering her own childhood, she says she was a normal kid who just wanted to play.
She points up at the ceiling.
"You see those pipes up here?" Hill said. "I would swing on those pipes across the room. And a teacher came in one time and I had to swing back and get down and get the strap. I knew it was coming."
The last of the institutions known as residential schools closed its doors in 1997, yet their legacy will be with Canada for a long time to come.
For Hill, she sees the building where she was forced to go to residential school as proof of what happened to her.
"It's a good reminder of the potential for the government and the churches to cover up things, and to be unfeeling about children," she said. "I think the basic idea was take children away from their families to change them into the white society."
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
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