WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
With training underway, the search for unmarked graves at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., is close to starting, but the group leading the efforts say it will take more than a year to cover the roughly 200 hectares of land.
Members of the Survivors’ Secretariat, formed by Six Nations of the Grand River and residential school survivors, and Six Nations police did a practice search Wednesday afternoon at Chiefswood Park in Six Nations using ground-penetrating radar technology.
“I’m a little excited we’re getting started, but I’ve got a little fear and worry just because of hearing the stories and knowing what we might see,” said Beverly Jacobs, who is Mohawk from Six Nations and also the Indigenous human rights monitor for the Survivors’ Secretariat.
The training, which began earlier this month, means another step closer to beginning the search. There are now enough people trained to begin, likely in the next week or two, said Kimberly Murray, also with the Survivors’ Secretariat.
The initiative was spurred by the discovery of 200 potential burial sites from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s preliminary search in Kamloops, B.C.
There are calls to search the former Mohawk Institute because it was one of Canada’s oldest and longest running residential schools, abducting and abusing children from 20 First Nation communities, according to the Survivors’ Secretariat.
Winter, weather will slow down search efforts
While Six Nations police, Brantford police and Ontario Provincial Police will be part of the search, survivors are leading the efforts and will monitor the work.
Multiple groups are being trained to do the ground search, each group needing two days of learning, according to Jacobs.
Members of Six Nations police spent most of Wednesday at Chiefswood Park tediously training on the grass during their second day. The practice runs were done in a grid with pylons and string marking the boundaries.
Police, and some Survivors’ Secretariat members pushed a cart with the radar up the grid in lanes, before going back, moving a foot to the side and going up again. They did the same horizontally, effectively searching the same area twice.
Arnold Jacobs, media relations officer with Six Nations police, said the technology will show if there are any “anomalies” detected underground and the data will then be sent for analysis before the ground is explored further.
Laura Arndt, chief operating officer of the Survivors’ Secretariat, said that with their two radar machines, it will take 40 hours to search almost half a hectare of land.
“It could take somewhere between 469 and 500-plus days to do the acres,” she said.
The search could also be delayed by poor weather, the winter and the nature of some of the terrain.
Survivors eager to start
Survivors and their family members at the training on Wednesday said they wished the search had started months ago, but are eager to see it getting closer to a reality, even if there’s no start date set yet.
“I’m glad to see them get started,” said John Elliott, who attended the school with his brother at age 10.
Wendy Hill, a cultural monitor with the Survivors’ Secretariat, said she hopes the search will help people believe and understand the trauma Indigenous communities have endured for decades.
“I hope our ancestors who had to suffer in there for hundreds of years can get some kind of relief or healing from saying, ‘This is what we’re talking about,'” she said.
Alfred Lonnie Johnson, also a residential school survivor, said he’s still exercising cautious skepticism.
“I won’t believe it until I see it,” he said.
While he hopes the search begins soon, Johnson said he understands that’s the reality of the situation.
“It took more than a day to steal this land, so it’ll take more than a day to give it back.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these 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.