SIX NATIONS OF THE GRAND RIVER, Ontario – Police officers and members of the Mohawk community worked together to drive two ground-penetrating radars resembling electric lawnmowers to search for human remains on the grounds of a former indigenous boarding school.
Roland Martin, 84 – who had been forced to attend school, the Mohawk Institute, in 1947 – watched and remembered. He remembered that food was so scarce that he and his classmates were looking for junk in a nearby garbage dump. “Sometimes you have to wonder how we did it,” he said. “How many people actually died here?”
Since May, the country has been searched for the remains of indigenous children who died in Canada’s infamous dormitories. At the time, radar scans of the Kamloops Indian Residential School site in British Columbia found evidence of 215 human remains, including many children, buried in unmarked graves.
But this search was different.
While most indigenous communities have hesitated to cooperate with the police due to deep distrust of the police, the Mohawk have entered into a delicate partnership with two police forces. Their hope is that by engaging law enforcement agencies, they will be able to have a formal criminal investigation into any unmarked grave site – and get justice and discover the truth about what happened.
The joint work could serve as a model for the involvement of the police in future searches
“We realized that we had to be very careful because of these trust issues with the police,” said Chief Mark B. Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, part of which encompasses the school grounds. “Survivors are very nervous about everything, aren’t they?”
From the 1880s through the 1990s, the Canadian government forcibly removed at least 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes and sent them to residential schools to be assimilated into Western ways of life. Their languages, religious and cultural practices were banned. In 2015 aNational Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the system “cultural genocide”.
Sexual, physical and emotional abuse and violence were the order of the day in schools, which were mostly run by Christian churches on behalf of the government. Thousands of children were missing.
Many indigenous leaders say the remains discovered across Canada are an expression of criminal activity in schools, ranging from improper burial to neglect and murder.
The national commission found records showing that at least 54 students died at the Mohawk Institute, which was one of the system’s oldest and longest-running schools when it finally closed in 1970.
Still, they were cautious about allowing police officers to investigate the deaths because, like RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the First Nations Assembly, and other leaders say, they were an integral part of the system. Officials ripped indigenous children from their homes and took them to schools. They also tracked down runaways from schools and brought them back.
“There needs to be an investigation to see if any of our children were murdered,” Chief Archibald said in Kamloops last month when she called on the United Nations to appoint an independent investigator. âCanada must be held accountable for its genocide laws and guidelines. Canada is not allowed to investigate itself. “
This feeling of distrust is reinforced documented history of racist abuse of indigenous peoples by law enforcement officers, particularly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as a tendency among law enforcement officers to overlook or downplay crimes directed against them.
The decision to involve law enforcement in the search for the remains of the Mohawk Institute was therefore not an easy one for the Mohawk community.
Like many reservations in Ontario and Quebec, Six Nations has its own police force. Although this force is one of the few manned entirely by Indigenous officials – most of whom have relatives who have attended school – they lack the staff, forensic skills, budgets and other resources to conduct the search and criminal investigation on their own perform.
“We need the help,” said Chief Hill. “We are already understaffed, underfunded with the Six Nations Police.”
Chief Hill said that after what was learned at Kamloops School, he met with ex-institute students, or as they like to be called survivors, to see if their community should involve the Ontario Provincial Police, and if so, how.
This force had recently gotten into a sometimes tense stalemate with several Six Nations Mohawks trying to halt a construction project on land that had been entrusted to them by Great Britain in 1784.
And in 2007, an investigation criticized provincial police for shooting and killing Dudley George, a 38-year-old Ojibwa man, while protesting over property on land that had been confiscated from his community and eventually turned into a park.
However, many survivors said it was important to determine how the students died and who was responsible, even if perpetrators are likely to have died or are mentally incapable of standing under Canadian law.
“They said, ‘If these were white kids, the police would be there right away,'” said Kimberly R. Murray, lawyer and former executive director of the National Commission, recalling her first conversations with survivors of the institute.
The survivors also said that the students who died deserved at least the dignity of having found their graves.
So the Mohawks, the provincial police and the police in Brantford, Ontario, decided to ask for help, the city that surrounds the former school and borders on most of the country of the Six Nations.
But to counter the community’s distrust of the provincial police and other government agencies, the Six Nations Bandrat has issued a “Survivor SecretariatâDirected by Ms. Murray, a member of the Kanesatake Mohawk Nation near Montreal. This group has the final say on all matters relating to the site search.
Provincial police called the collaboration a “community-led burial site search” in a statement to the New York Times and said they would offer their assistance by “laying out a grid pattern for the area and taking aerial photographs” and assigning a case to managers to help.
The two systems “work together: traditional knowledge and colonial tools,” Ms. Murray said the morning the search began. âCommunity search teams have the knowledge, they have the skills. The police just have to know how to handle them. “
One of Ms. Murray’s first actions was the appointment of Beverly Jacobs, a Mohawk and law professor who oversees policing from a human rights perspective, and other observers to ensure that the search and investigation is cultural.
Ms. Murray said it would likely be years before the search was prosecuted. The search itself could take years as the institute also ran a 500 acre farm and the school’s full records were difficult to come by.
Another question is whether the Six Nations will decide to exhume remains for DNA testing to identify and determine the cause of death – a prelude to bringing everyone to justice. The question of whether the remains should be exhumed has been controversial in many indigenous communities.
The only other indigenous community known to have police investigating missing home students is in Manitoba, where an RCMP investigation that began in 2010 has not yet brought charges.
The day Mr. Martin watched the police ransack the property, Geronimo Henry, another survivor, walked across the property and found the spot where he had carved his nickname Fish into one of the red bricks. Mr. Henry spent 11 years at the school after arriving at the age of 6 in 1942.
âUsing the radar to look for unmarked graves is part of the truth and reconciliation,â he said. âThe natives tell the truth. Now it is up to the government to reconcile itself with all this injustice. “