BRANTFORD, Ont. — How do you repair a disaster 142 years in the making? For Mennonite Disaster Service Canada and Mennonite Central Committee, it will happen one desk, one table and one bench at a time.
This summer, the two organizations will work together with the Woodland Cultural Centre to help in the restoration of the former Mohawk Residential School in Brantford.
“It’s not a typical MDS disaster response,” said Nick Hamm, chair of the Ontario unit. “But residential schools were a disaster for Canada’s indigenous people.”
Through the project, he said, “we can play a small role in promoting reconciliation and healing and also promote awareness to volunteers about what happened there . . . the building represents so many horrors.”
During its time of operation from 1828 to 1970, thousands of indigenous children were sent to the school — separated from their families, stripped of their heritage and not allowed to use their language. Some were physically, sexually and psychologically abused.
When it closed, the school and lands were returned to the Six Nations of the Grand River, which opened the Woodland Cultural Centre in 1972.
Severe storm damage
In 2014, after a storm severely damaged the building, the community was asked whether to tear it down or save it. An overwhelming majority voted to restore it, launching a fundraising campaign called “Save the Evidence.”
Through the campaign, grants for major repairs were received from various levels of government. But assistance was still needed to complete exhibits.
In 2016, Woodland asked MCC if it could help.
“We were honored to receive the request and asked MDS to partner with us,” said Lyndsay Mollins Koene, who coordinates MCC’s Ontario Indigenous Neighbours program.
During the four-week project, which starts in July, youth groups from Ontario and British Columbia will build desks for a representative classroom where children studied and the benches and tables for the dining room where they ate. They will also help repair and organize the return move of the center’s research library.
MDS is supplying the volunteers. MCC will assist with cultural orientation, along with funding the cost of the materials.
“The project is steeped in a story we are a part of,” Mollins Koene said. Mennonites founded and ran three residential schools in Ontario.
History still with us
Through the project, MCC and MDS are inviting their constituent churches “to work as part of a story that talks about a colonial history that is still part of Canada today,” she said. Woodland Cultural Centre “has extended a hand to us to be members of a three-way partnership.”
For Carley Gallant-Jenkins, outreach coordinator at Woodland, it’s “very important to us to have MCC and MDS alongside, offering their support and services.”
After almost five years of work, “we are finally seeing the end in sight,” she said. Assistance from MCC and MDS “will help us get back into the building.”
The dining-hall restoration will be particularly poignant.
“Siblings who were sent to the school were separated,” Gallant-Jenkins said. “In the dining hall, they couldn’t talk to each other, but at least they could see each other from a distance.”
In addition to the work, volunteers will get a chance to assist with an archaeological dig, participate in cultural and historical orientations and meet survivors.
“The project is more than restoring a building,” Mollins Koene said. “It’s about restoring relationships between nations and between individuals.”