An unmarked gravesite drags a not-so-distant horror back into the spotlight. Is this a real reckoning?


BRANTFORD, Ontario — It was Dawn Hill’s first night at the Mohawk Institute here, one of the more than 130 residential schools established in Canada to assimilate Indigenous children, and she and her sister were afraid.

Away from their home on the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian reserve, crammed into a dormitory with dozens of girls who were strangers, the 7- and 6-year-olds turned to the familiar: each other. Roberta crawled into Dawn’s bed.

Before long, a housemother at the school was punishing them for it. Armed with a leather belt, she strapped the girls three times on each arm, leaving big welts from the crooks of their arms to their fingertips.

“That was our introduction to the ‘Mush Hole’ life,” said Hill, now 71, using the name students gave the school, for the gruel they were served. “We were always getting the strap … just for, to me, minor things that kids do normally — now that I see what normal kids do.”

The discovery of an unmarked burial site containing the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia, announced last month by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, dragged the horror of Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous people back into the spotlight — for the moment, at least.

The preliminary findings reopened old wounds for residential-school survivors; the grief rippled across Canada. Flags were lowered. Requests piled up for searches at other former school sites, including the Mohawk Institute.