‘Reclaiming the space’: Celebrating First Nations cultures at a former residential school

TVO.org speaks with Carley Gallant-Jenkins, of the Woodland Cultural Centre, about Orange Shirt Day — and making sure that voices that were taken away are now being heard
By Mary Baxter - Published on Sep 30, 2020
Fundraising co-ordinator Carley Gallant-Jenkins (left) stands with curator Patricia Deadman outside the Woodland Cultural Centre. (Mary Baxter)

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BRANTFORD — Earlier this week, orange T-shirts flooded the gift shop of the Woodland Cultural Centre, an Indigenous cultural institution that includes a gallery, a museum, and a library. The merch arrived in anticipation of Orange Shirt Day, which falls on September 30 each year and draws attention to the devastating and long-lasting impact that Canada’s residential schools had on an estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children — and honours survivors.

As the centre is located on the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute, Canada’s first and longest-running residential school, this year’s memorial takes on added significance: 2020 marks 50 years since the school closed. Carley Gallant-Jenkins, a spokesperson for the centre, which is now owned by Six Nations of the Grand River, says that the plan had been to commemorate the anniversary with the completion of a $23.5 million fundraising campaign to renovate the Mohawk Institute building and establish it as a place to educate people about residential schools. The pandemic, though, had an impact, she says: “We did, unfortunately, suffer a financial loss during April and May with donations being down 83 per cent.” And even before that, she notes, new problems had been discovered, which drove up costs and widened the scope of the work.

Yet with $12 million raised to date and roughly $11 million pending from various levels of government, the campaign is nearing its target. “Our new, proposed, hopeful, fingers-crossed opening date is June of 2022,” she says, explaining that the date is meaningful because the Mohawk Institute closed in June 1970, and it will also be the Woodland Cultural Center’s 50th year in operation.

TVO.org spoke with Gallant-Jenkins about the latest project, the legacy of residential schools, and how the centre works to preserve, promote, and celebrate First Nations cultures.

TVO.org: How are you managing Orange Shirt Day this year, given the need to physically distance because of the pandemic?

Carley Gallant-Jenkins: Normally, we have a multi-day event. The first day of the event is very geared toward survivors and their families. We have survivors join us from all across Canada. 

Then, the second day, we open it up to more of the general public. We do a healing walk down this laneway, all in our orange shirts, led by the survivors, with the general public following — with this idea that we are all on this journey together and that we are all supporting each other and physically moving forward together. 

This year, unfortunately, our moving-forward-together survivors' gathering had to be cancelled. But schools will get to see the virtual tour of the Mohawk Institute. They'll get to hear two new interviews from survivors that we've just recorded this past month and get to do a Q and A session with our education team to ask those questions.

writing on a wall
Residents of the former facility often added their names to the brick; since the school closed, former residents have added their names. (Mary Baxter)

TVO.org: What was behind the decision to restore and repurpose the Mohawk Institute building?

Gallant-Jenkins: In 2013, there was pretty significant roof damage and water damage from a storm. We had to evacuate the building. It was being used as offices for the Woodland Cultural Centre, and we also had rental spaces. We received a quote from a roofing business, and they said that it was going to be about $1 million to repair the roof. So Woodland decided that it wasn't its decision to save the building or not. We did three [rounds of] community consultations — with Brantford, Brant County, Six Nations — and we invited our three support communities, which are Six Nations, Tyendinaga and Wahta. 

TVO.org: Was there resistance to saving it?

Gallant-Jenkins: Yes, because it is a place that caused so much intergenerational trauma in our communities that we're still healing from and probably will be for years to come. And I think that, when you're hurt, it's easy to want to get rid of the building that hurts you — or are in this space where you were hurt.

But 98 per cent of the community wanted to save the building. And so we began fundraising to save the roof. We found out there was a lot more that needed to be done than just the roof. The roofing structure below it also needed work, and if we were doing that, then we had to also repair all the water damage from the roof damage, a roof leak. It just very naturally became that we're preserving this whole building. If the community wants it saved, then we're saving it from the ground up.

TVO.org: What have you done so far?

Gallant-Jenkins: The front porch — we've completely remodelled it to look like some archival reference photos. We have begun the process of redoing all the windows. We have done the dental work, so all around the top [below the soffits], those little teeth-looking things that pop out. The roof structure, the dormers, and the cupola have been restored, and the basement has been completely waterproofed. The HVAC and electrical have been updated. The abatement is complete. We no longer have any asbestos or mould, which was a huge problem a couple of years ago. We also removed all of our critter friends and then the rear roof, which was once eight separate roofing structures. 

a child's boot in a glass case
A child's boot was one of the many items found in the walls of the former residential school during renovations. (Mary Baxter)

TVO.org: What have you discovered during the renovation process?

Gallant-Jenkins: Notebooks — enrolment-admissions notebooks — and pieces of paper in the walls and the fireplaces. We found lots of paper from students and note cards. They received a card from home, and they would hide it in the walls. When renovations were at full-speed ahead, the site super was bringing over items daily — and that doesn't include the items that were found on the site during archaeology, as well. It's all in our collections.

TVO.org: How will this space be used?

Gallant-Jenkins: We're still figuring that out. We're in a unique situation. We don't necessarily have to be a full museum with full museum displays, because we have the physical space where this all took place. We have had an interpretation plan made up; it has been submitted to our board of directors. What we want to do is definitely make sure that it's paying tribute to the survivors — and doing it respectfully.

TVO.org: The Woodland Cultural Centre champions Indigenous culture on the same grounds on which great effort was once made to destroy it. Do these conflicting legacies challenge your approach as a cultural centre?

Gallant-Jenkins: Since the day the Woodland Cultural Centre opened, it was always to focus on moving forward, healing. Our mandate is protect, preserve, promote, and celebrate our culture; you can't do one without the other.

We are first and foremost a cultural centre. The residential school is not our culture. It's something that happened to us. It's a part of our history, but our main focus is our culture. We're reclaiming the space and, you know, we're making sure that those voices that were taken away are now being heard.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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