Indian Residential Schools: a brief history of the Mush Hole

Today I received news that my mother’s application for the Common Experience Payment, or CEP, (under Canada’s 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement) has run its course to a conclusion. This after two and one-half years of collecting documents, filling forms, phoning and re-phoning Government employees across the country, collecting further documents, and, having arrived at a procedural cul-de-sac, shutting things down to invoke an appeal. And, most of all, waiting.

This reference to procedural cul-de-sac concerns one of many stumbling blocks faced by former students of Indian residential schools who apply for the CEP. Often there are records in the Government’s possession showing some of the years of residence but not others. Researchers charged with assessing applications (the Government is careful to stress, by the way, the CEP is not “compensation,” but rather an acknowledgement of the common experience of being forcibly removed from family and community and placed in institutions) can not issue a payment for a year under consideration without proof of residence. If there is documentation concerning, say, 1950 and 1955 only, the intervening years can not be calculated for the purpose of the CEP. Unless the documents can be found, somehow, at some point down the road. And what a long road it can be! What is not widely known is that an applicant in this bind may request and be granted termination of the search — in effect to be deemed ineligible for a CEP in the undocumented years. This may seem like madness after a two or three year investment in a process. However, having in effect “asked” to be declined, one may proceed to an appeal process, which places the matter under the authority of persons authorized to make a judgement in the absence of records. In the hypothetical case above, the authorities may decide to issue a payment for the years 1950 to 1955, inclusive. This was the case in my mother’s appeal.

My mother is a highly confident, tenacious, assertive, and capable person — but the Sisyphean task of pushing this matter to a conclusion brought her on more than one occasion to tears. I can only guess at the number of applicants in the same situation who gave up and were, once again, humiliated and gutted by a “process” which, despite some well-meaning employees, quite shafted them. Some things really do never change.

The gaping colonial maw at the centre of this was the Mohawk Institute, an Indian residential school known more commonly as the Mush Hole. The Mush Hole had the distinction of being both the first and longest-operated Indian residential school in Canada, its construction having been begun in 1829, and its time as a federally-managed institution ending in 1969. In 1930, a one-hundred-year-later retrospective was penned by a bureaucrat at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. (You can find it here.) I’ve often wondered what Joseph Brant, who in 1822 asked the British to construct a school and church at Six Nations, would have made of the Mush Hole. Or the negotiators of the numbered treaties, who made education in exchange for territory a strategic bargaining issue in the 1870s. Perhaps it’s a pointless exercise, but it at least suggests the enormous gap between what is agreed to in principle, and what is delivered by the political machinery. We negotiated an education agreement and got residential schools. Beginning from the Haldimand Tract, we end in Ohsweken (five percent of the land in that settlement, the rest having been sold off by Canada, which then used the money for its own infrastructure). Canada’s “interpretation” of the Kaswentha (Two Row Wampum) led to an invasion of our territories and a deposing of our government, in the 1920s.

It was roughly the time my grandfather was in the Mush Hole when protests against attempts by Canada to subvert the independence of the Haudenosaunee culminated in a 1923 trip to Geneva to petition the League of Nations. Deskaheh, or Levi General as he was known in English, was a man so eloquent and forceful in articulating the multiple crimes of Canada against the Six Nations that he was forced out of the country and died on Tuscarora land, near Niagara Falls, New York. Partly I suspect as a retaliation for having been shamed in Switzerland, and partly out of a “pre-emptive” desire to make certain it never happen again, Canada sent the RCMP into Grand River Territory in October 1924, and a puppet government (the Chief and band council system, which we have to this day) was forcibly imposed. Here’s an official characterization of these events, as recorded in the 1924 Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs:

Until the present year the Six Nations Indians, who are located at Ohsweken, Brant county, Ontario, had from time immemorial selected their chiefs and councillors by an ancient hereditary system in which the voting power lay with the Women of the different tribes and clans. It had been for some years obvious that this obsolete system was wholly unsuited to modern conditions of life and detrimental to progress and advancement. There has unfortunately developed, moreover, during the past few years a retrogressive and obstructive agitation on the reserve which has so impeded progressive administration that it was felt that an improvement in their political system must be effected without delay. In March, 1923, the Government appointed a Royal Commission in the person of Lt.-Col. Andrew T. Thompson to investigate the affairs of the Six Nations. The commissioner in his report, among other important recommendations, strongly urged the abolition of the old tribal system of choosing the councillors. This recommendation was promptly put into effect by the department. An Order in Council, dated September 17, 1924, was passed applying the election provision of Part Two of the Indian Act to the Six Nations. The election was held on October 21, 1924. Under the new method, the Six Nations will have a measure of local autonomy largely corresponding to that of a rural municipality but subject to the supervision of the department and the Governor in Council. It is felt that the change that has been made will assuredly further the development of these Indians and hasten the time when they will become a fully responsible and self-supporting community.

Deskaheh’s final speech, which rehearses this criminal undertaking, is one of the finest pieces of oratory I’ve ever read. On the other end of that spectrum is the above quotation, in particular the robotic falderal of the closing line.

My grandfather rarely referred to his years at the Mush Hole, though he did allude to times when hunger was so acute he and other children would dig by moonlight in the school’s adjacent field to find a raw potato to eat. In later years, he could be rather difficult to be around, and never far off when in his presence was the uneasy feeling that he carried within him some sort of unresolved quarrel better left unprovoked. Bitterness doesn’t quite cover it, but there was certainly that. He would attack his family, as well as the folks he’d chance upon at Six Nations, for not knowing how to speak the Haudenosaunee languages. I heard from him many stories of Deskaheh and learned of, quite without wanting to, the sufferings and grievances of our people. It was always unpleasant as a teenager to cross the US/Canada border with him, and to sit mortified in the passenger’s seat as he spoke Mohawk to the Customs Officer (“I’m speaking American to you. If you don’t understand it’s because you are an immigrant”) and lectured them on the Jay Treaty. Ask yourself: have you ever witnessed an armed American security official rendered speechless by someone he was duty-bound to question? Well I have. My grandfather was a Mohawk nationalist and a Seventh-Day Adventist, and I can tell you that the grass on either side of his improbable fence was sharp under the feet. But we all make our point in our own manner. My grandmother resolved without fanfare to live a dignified life, thereby rebuking those who would claim we were dirty and stupid. From her I learned the importance of developing one’s mind, and from my grandfather I doubtless inherited fire.

I’m glad that, so far as the CEP is concerned, there is a conclusion at hand for my family. But I feel sad also. No money can ever change the fact that this was yet another arrangement conceived and carried out by the Canadian Government to rub everything Indian, once and for all, from the face and memory of Earth. Many children were disfigured, in many cases irreversibly, by it. These are the sort of unpleasant facts I would prefer to forget, if it weren’t also the case that I know I must never allow myself to do so.

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One thought on “Indian Residential Schools: a brief history of the Mush Hole”

  1. Just goes to show the incompetence of the Federal government both then and now……The word has power keep writing……


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