A brighter future for the Mohawk Institute of Brantford is assured after the Woodland Cultural Center raised $23.5 million to convert the former boarding school into an interpretive centre.
“Six years ago, when we launched the campaign, we thought it would take us a lot longer to achieve this goal,” Woodland chief executive Janis Monture told The Spectator.
“So the fact that we were able to achieve it in six years is quite monumental, especially during COVID, which made fundraising even more difficult because there were so many other needs.”
the Keep the evidence campaign launched following major flooding in 2013 that forced a conversation about the future of the facility.
Survivors and members of Six Nations decided to restore the 36,000 square foot building, one of the few former residential schools still standing in Canada, so that the school and its stories would not be lost to history.
Monture said support comes in the form of donations large and small, from governments and nonprofit groups to local businesses and hundreds of individuals.
Contributions multiplied “by ten” after the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, in May 2021, which brought global media attention to the work of the Mohawk Institute and Woodland to preserve Indigenous culture and languages.
“We actually weren’t promoting (the Save the Evidence campaign) ourselves during this 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 came along, it was very shocking to a lot of 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 had heard of Woodland through “allies, partners and supporters” who had publicized the Save the Evidence campaign.
“For me, it was incredibly overwhelming with the support coming in, because we weren’t expecting this,” she said. “Other people were giving us their voices.”
Monture said it was especially important that Six Nations band members and businesses support Woodland’s mission.
“It was another where we were completely humbled. They were doing their own fundraising through their own businesses and organizations, and those were some of our biggest private donations,” she said. .
“I think with everything going on, they (say) it’s really important that this place stays and people can visit it.”
With the necessary 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 begin in earnest.
This phase includes the preservation of the school’s masonry – and the names and messages carved into the walls by former students – as well as the addition of accessibility features, the replacement of windows, the completion of HVAC and mechanical, and paving of parking lot and long driveway.
At its peak, 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 from 1904, after the school was built in 1828 and its successor both burned down.
Once the renovations are complete, visitors can tour the building and learn about what happened inside Canada’s residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.
The Indigenous Language Revitalization Department and Woodland Research Library will also be housed inside the old school “to talk about the importance of language and culture, which was taken away from our people at the ‘residential school days,'” Monture said.
“So the work we’re doing right now is really about doing the exact opposite.”
The plan was to open the new center in late 2024, but Monture said the timeline is less certain now as renovations are to take place around ongoing efforts to search for any remains of young Indigenous people who died at the institute. .
Ground searches are expected to resume this spring.