Doug George-Kanentiio: Bad Residential School Memories, October 27, 2011

I was a student at the Mohawk Institute (a.k.a. the “Mushhole” for its unique brand of watery porridge) in Brantford, Ontario from January, 1967 to June, 1968 when I, along with a large group of Akwesasne Mohawks, were informed we would no longer be welcome to one of Canada’s most notorious residential schools.

Our rebellious manner and our habit of claiming unattached physical property in the city of Brantford meant we were also banished from most businesses including the Clarks department store where we were once caught with hundreds of dollars of sports equipment meant for use by kids whose only gear were third hand skates, ragged hockey sweaters and misshapen softballs.

We refused to become silent, passive victims of a system which used brutal physical force enforce its rules, regulations designed to break our spirits and instill fear in each one of us. Add to this was the prison diet, strict regimentation of our time and the obliteration of our identities as Natives. The consequences were children hostile to the world and prone to personal and communal acts of extreme violence.

A casual survey of what the “alumnus” of the Institute have done with their lives after leaving Brantford would affirm the sad and terrible legacy of that place at Akwesasne and elsewhere. Our schoolmates from that time have done many bad things from murdering other Mohawks to destroying their families by replicating what we learned behind the red walls, near the broken swings and in the barns of the Mushhole.

We were warned that many kids had died there but only one was known to us, a wonderful boy named Joey Commanda from Golden Lake, an Algonquin pal who spoke with a distinct northern Ontario accent, almost Cockney British in its inflections. Joey was the youngest of three brothers to be assigned to the Mushhole, the oldest was Guy and then Rocky, a year ahead. Joey told funny stories and was smart, wiry and fast.

Together, the Algonquin-Akwesasne Mohawk gang brought a lot of trouble to the Institute’s administrators, “housefathers” and teachers. We fought with the other students, mostly Crees from central Quebec. It did not matter if we lost, we needed to strike out and if a Cree was not in fist range we turned on each other.

Many of the most intense brawls took place when our group turned inward and used hands, knees, teeth and feet against our own. We took the bruises and cuts then watched as the red welts rose on our hands and arms from the long, three foot heavy leather straps used with wicked force by the housefathers to punish us for, of all things, fighting. Their logic was that by beating children into submission the use of violence would be exorcised from our behaviour.

The harsh truth was that the beatings led to a lessening of empathy towards those who were victims because the expression of sympathy led to more cruelty, more strappings. There were a few students from Oshweken-Six Nations there, the last inmates from a community which we later learned actually owned the grounds upon which the school squatted.

No one in authority at Six Nations Band Council ever came to visit which made the desperate feelings of being abandoned to the brutal overseers suffocating and complete. While it is true we did not break but many of the Mohawk students became seriously warped.

There were no good, nurturing words spoken at the Mushhole. We had no mentors, no adult protectors. We saw kids desperate for affection who willingly allowed themselves to be molested. We learned to position our bodies in places where the older boys could not attack. We learned quickly that the threat of violence and the resulting fear was the most effective way of controlling others.

We also realized that there was some degree of safety in a pack and as such we raised hell. We escaped a number of times, following railway tracks to the northeast, believing that in time we could walk the 500 kilometers to Akwesasne, bringing Joey and Rocky with us.

Arrests by the Ontario Provincial Police and a collective strapping and denial of food was the result but we tried repeatedly, not knowing then that if we reached the reserve we would have been sent to reform schools as incorrigibles. Afterwards, many of our gang were graduated to reformatories, prisons and rehab centres. But our fighting, arguing, thieving and Mohawk arrogance finally exhausted the school’s administrator, a rotund ethnic German named Conrad Zimmerman, the overseer who patrolled the grounds with a massive and mean police dog. He forced us out since for our actions were being copied by the even tempered Crees while repeatedly embarrassing the school.

Rocky and Joey were, however, sent back in the fall of 1968. They were lost without their Mohawk friends and decided to hike to Golden Lake, reaching the edges of Toronto after evading the cops. Joey was struck by an eastbound train in Oakville on September 3 and killed. He was described in the official report as a “trespasser”, not as a brave and hungry Native boy on his way to a distant home.

No one was held responsible for the death of Joseph William Commanda. I don’t know if a ceremony was ever done at the place where he was hit by the train, on the number 3 track in those railyards, I hope his spirit is not confined at the Mushhole.

As one of his many Mohawk friends I feel deep regret that we were not there with him, that he was left vulnerable at a place where we could not protect him. I hope that those who are compiling a list of the Mushhole victims will not forget Joey, known to us and now to them.

It is Joey Commanda, the human being, a 13 year old Algonquin boy, who needs to be remembered. This is the one death of a Native child that I know of personally which occurred at the Mohawk Institute. There were whispered to be others.

Doug George-Kanentiio, is an Akwesasne Mohawk. He is the co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of “Iroquois On Fire”. He resides in Oneida Castle with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.

Roberta Hill – Broken Spirit

My memories of living with my parents were happy ones until my father died in 1954. My mother struggled to raise 7 young children on her own. Unfortunately, she was not able to manage due to a mental breakdown and she was institutionalized and this resulted in me and my siblings being placed in the Mohawk Institute Residential School (Mushhole) in 1957 in Brantford, Ontario. Entry into the Residential School was very scary for us. We had no one to turn to and were totally reliant on the administrators of the school for any and all of our needs. The focus of my story is to let others know that what should have been a positive in our lives turned out to be the opposite.

What happens to a child when separated from their parents? How are their needs met and by this I mean the emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical well being? Being deprived of the basic nurturing components that would ensure healthy growth and development was not evident at the “Mushhole”. From the very beginning the isolation and loneliness was very evident. The one way of ensuring compliance with children was to physically punish and threaten.

One of the most devastating times for me was not being able to leave with my mother during the few visits she was allowed. These visits were highly emotional and I usually sat on her lap and cried through the entire visit. I was so happy to see her but I knew in my heart that I couldn’t keep her with me.

After she was gone I was so distraught and in such and state of emotional distress. During these visits the Minister of the Institution sat in his office directly across from the visiting room and could monitor our visits. The last time I saw my mother at the School I was in the girls’ playroom and one of the little girls had told me my mother was here to visit. I started running towards the stairs that would take me up to the main lobby but froze at the bottom of the stairs and started crying and I couldn’t stop. The tears were flowing so heavily. I wanted my mother’s arms around me so much but, I knew I would have to go through the same separation again. I call this experience ” emotional rape”. Emotionally I was ripped apart and the only thing I could do was detach myself from this trauma that I was experiencing. I was able to see myself from a distance and when I did this I didn’t feel the hurt and pain anymore as I stood in that basement. What I do remember was the little girl came up to me and told me my mother was leaving and asked me if I loved my mother. She said your mother is going to leave if you don’t want to see her. That is when I came back to the reality of the situation and I ran up the stairs crying and found my mother waiting for me. I hugged her as long as I could and cried through the whole visit. That is the last time I saw her at the “Mushhole”.

What I do remember after this visit is that the minister had me in his office sitting on his lap and I was still upset and crying. This perverse man pretended to comfort me but, what he was doing was molesting me as I sat there crying. His hands were where they should not have been and this led to him sexually assaulting me. This is the man that we as children were told if we didn’t behave we would be sent to him for any kind of discipline. I had already developed a fear of him and to be totally overpowered and assaulted by this man was extremely traumatic emotionally and psychologically. From that point on I learned to stop crying and hide my emotions. I did not want to feel pain and hurt again. Children are quite resilient even through abuse. I was able to put up a protective barrier that allowed me not to show emotions or feel the pain and this protective mechanism lasted throughout my childhood and to some degree even into adulthood.

The abuse continued by the Minister and he used the pulpit to terrorize. I sat at the back of the church and tried really hard not to fall asleep because if he caught me I knew what the punishment would be. It seemed like the blink of an eye that I fell asleep for only a few seconds. I remember waking up suddenly as his voice was loud and when I opened my eyes he was looking directly at me. I could feel my heart beating fast and I was scared of what my punishment would be. The assault occurred within the Church and now I was even more terrified. There was no safe place to be and no one to help me. The one person of authority over all of the children was also the abuser and this is the one person that we were threatened with if we did not behave. We were totally at his mercy because of my mother’s situation we had no home to go to. The Institution was our home.

There was a systematic way of destroying us as children. These predators new exactly what they were doing. We were emotionally and psychologically damaged and the Institution itself was a breeding ground for many abuses and housed the most vile predators. What I really wanted was to have my mother’s love and have her hold me the way she used to. A mother’s love for her child is endless. Female predators were also at work. Usual techniques of grooming a child and playing with their affection and a great desire by the child to be loved allowed the abuses to continue. I feel like it was a form of emotional prostitution. What you want is to be loved and have someone treat you with kindness and give you the hugs that you miss from your mother. I did not like what was being done to me but during these times I could escape by putting up the emotional barriers that acted as shield so the hurt and pain did not come through.

Imagine what a child’s life is like trying to fend for themselves in this environment. These abuses were taking place in many Residential Schools across Canada. I did not understand that the little broken child in me was left at the “Mushhole” and through my own healing journey and the wonderful people I have met along the way helped me to bring that child out of the “Mushhole” and bring her home. I still feel scarred and damaged but the burden of guilt and shame is not mine to carry anymore.

Roberta “burdocks” (Mushhole name) Hill

Roberta Hill – June 8, 2017

My sister Dawn Hill and Lillian Beaver were friends at the Mush Hole. I can’t remember the year the two of them decided to run away. I only remember being very afraid of being left alone there. Certainly there were many other children at the school but none were my sister. We were already at the Mush Hole for a few years and all our other brothers and sisters were placed either in foster care or like the oldest sister sent to reform school for daring to defend herself against “Skin”. So, this left Dawn and me.

I don’t remember who told me that Dawn and Lillian had run away but it put me into panic mode. I was so terrified of being left there by myself without a flesh and blood sister to lean on. Where my plan came from I don’t remember but I was going to find Dawn and bring her back. I never ever considered myself a runaway from the school but I guess I was breaking the rules by leaving the premises without permission or supervision. To this day I don’t remember who the other little girl was that assisted me in the rescue of my sister. Off we went down Birkett’s Lane and out to Erie Ave. I never knew the name of these streets then but I do remember the direction we took. We walked for a long, long, time. Eventually we came to a store or gas station that is located where Derris’s gas station is today. It was closed, but there was a telephone booth outside. Between the two of us little girls we used quite a bit of ingenuity. We had no money and I wasn’t familiar with a telephone. I can’t recall using a phone prior to this. We never had one in our home at Thomas’s corner but the neighbors had a phone. The smart little girl that was with me told me that in order to make a phone call we needed money or we could make our own coin. Well, wouldn’t you know, there was an empty cigarette pack lying on the ground. I flattened that foil and made it into a circle small enough to fit into the pay phone just like my friend told me to do. It worked and I connected somehow and got a hold of someone at the Mush Hole and I told them where we were and why we were away from the school. We never saw Dawn or Lillian so they were some pretty fast moving girls. Maybe they went a different route. As far as I know they ended up getting caught around 69 Corners.

I never meant any harm to my sister or Lillian I just didn’t want to be alone in the Mush Hole. Unfortunately, my sister did get a strapping from Rev. Zimmerman and I think Lillian would have suffered the same fate. I was under 10 yrs of age when I experienced this flight from the Mush Hole in order to rescue my older sister and she was only 1 year older than me. I did not receive any punishment but it wouldn’t have mattered because I had my sister back.

I am not sure how Dawn & Lillian returned to the school, it could have been the RCMP or Rev Zimmerman. I know that many forces were at work to ensure the return of children to the Residential Schools.”