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Photo by Simon Wilson

A distorted view

For the first time, Ontario’s Six Nations council is allowing the windows of its historic Mohawk Chapel to be photographed for national publication —controversy and all

By Anne Bokma

The woman in the stained glass window wears a demure expression that matches her high-necked Victorian blouse. The cross around her neck is duplicated in the tree carving a boy makes with a knife. He is one of several well-dressed young Aboriginal children circled around the woman as she reads to them, her arm tenderly tucked around the smallest child.

The window echoes the “Suffer the Little Children” biblical illustrations of Jesus lovingly drawing in the young ones. But these children, despite their picture-perfect appearance, really did suffer. They were confined to the big edifice in the window’s background: the Mohawk Institute, Canada’s oldest residential school, which was attended by seven generations of Aboriginal children: 15,000 students — 10 percent of Canada’s Aboriginal residential school population — from 1831 to 1970.

Nostalgically titled “Residential School Days,” the window is one of a series of eight in Ontario’s oldest Protestant church, Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks. Situated in Brantford, Ont., on Six Nations territory, the 1785 Anglican chapel was given to the Mohawks for their loyalty to the Crown during the American Revolution. It stands as a testament to the role the Six Nations, led by war chief Joseph Brant, played in the early settlement of Ontario. Its arched stained glass windows, installed between 1959 and ’62, are the only historic church windows in Canada with an Aboriginal narrative. Combined, they detail the political and religious events that shaped the Six Nations, Canada’s largest Aboriginal reserve. (See sidebar, Stories in the Glass).

The Observer is the first national publication given permission to publish images of these windows. In the past, the Six Nations council didn’t allow the windows to be photographed due to copyright concerns and the worry that potential patrons might be discouraged from visiting if they could view photos of them elsewhere. The proliferation of cellphone cameras and social media rendered the latter point moot.

The history of the Mohawk Chapel is deeply intertwined with that of the nearby Mohawk Institute, nicknamed the “Mush Hole” by survivors because the main dietary staple was watery oatmeal. Operated by the Anglican church, the school, like others run by the Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches, followed the federal government’s policy of assimilation, which aimed to kill the Indian in the child. Every Sunday, children would walk from the school to the Mohawk Chapel for services. Contrary to their idealized appearance in the stained glass, their hair was shorn and they wore ill-fitting uniforms. Often forcibly removed from their families, they were identified by numbers instead of their names, separated from their opposite-gender siblings and forbidden to speak their language. Boys were used as labourers, and girls were often hired out as housemaids to rich folks in town. They received just a half day of basic schooling. Many were sexually preyed upon by their Christian caretakers. Many tried to run away. In 1903, students set the school on fire in a desperate attempt to obliterate the place.

This is the misery not shown in the window. But what to make of that angelic-looking woman? She is Susan Hardie, a teacher at the school for 50 years until she retired in 1936. By some reports, she was one of the kinder staff members, perhaps because she was at least part Aboriginal and had attended the school herself as a child. (Her ancestry is mysterious: some say she was the granddaughter of Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister; others speculate she was the illegitimate child of the famous Indigenous poet Pauline Johnson; one high-profile academic claims she was the daughter of a Brantford judge who hired her mother, a student at the school, as a housekeeper, impregnated her and then paid for Hardie’s upkeep at the school.)

“Miss Hardie,” as she was known, was esteemed enough for former students of the school to dedicate this window in her honour in 1960 when she was in her 90s.

Despite the horrors it hides, some, like Barry Hill, see a kind of beauty in this window, too. He says his grandmother benefitted from the tutelage of Hardie when she was a student at the school, and he never heard “any bad stories” from her. “This is not an apology window [for residential schools],” says Hill, a member of the Six Nations community who serves as chair of the chapel and is also its resident historian and organist. “It’s a tribute to Miss Hardie and how she rose above what was around her.”

Hill, 73, still remembers the day when the retired Hardie visited his grandmother when he was 10. “She was so excited about her former teacher visiting, she even bought a straight-backed Queen Anne chair for her to sit on.”

Few former students, if any, have similarly fond memories of Rev. John Zimmerman, the school’s principal from 1945 to 1970 and the chapel’s chaplain from 1945 until his retirement in 1981. In the living histories of the school’s survivors, Zimmerman is described as physically and sexually abusive. A 2015 article in the Six Nations’ Two Row Times newspaper calls him one of the “most hated men in Indian Country . . . many former students, now adults, even today cry at the sound of his name.” In the book The Mush Hole: Life at Two Residential Schools, Bob White Eye recounts how Zimmerman would hit students for falling asleep during his sermons. He was made a canon in 1958.

Earlier this year, the archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada made a statement at the Mohawk Chapel in an effort to fulfil one of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “I must never weary of saying, on behalf of our church, I’m sorry,” said Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, acknowledging the many losses residential school children have experienced, including “loss of their dignity through assault of every kind — emotional, physical, and sexual.”

Geronimo Henry was in the pews that day. Now 80, Henry lived at the Mohawk Institute and attended chapel services for 10 years beginning in 1942 when he was five. After leaving the school, he was an alcoholic for some 30 years (he got sober in 1980) and has lived a troubled life. “My friends who went there were all mixed up like me,” says Henry, who received $40,000 in government compensation for his years at the school, an amount he calls “a slap in the face because [the school] ruined my life.”

He doesn’t accept the archbishop’s apology. “I don’t get how his message is supposed to heal me. I didn’t feel anything.” What does help him heal, he says, is talking about his experiences on tours he leads at the Mohawk Institute, now an educational centre that teaches people about the residential school system.

Today, Henry also serves as an occasional greeter at the Mohawk Chapel, always wearing a buckskin vest and a symbol of his bear clan around his neck. “It’s my way of saying to the church, ‘It didn’t work. You didn’t totally assimilate me. I’m still wearing my Native clothes.’”

Barry Hill acknowledges there are mixed feelings in the Aboriginal community about the chapel and especially its “Residential School Days” window. “Some people have dealt with it, and others will come here and break down in tears because what’s represented in the window is not their memory. It just reminds them of the bad memories,” says Hill. “They’ll say the whole chapel should be burned down.” Indeed, over the years there have been two unsolved arson attempts.

But Hill continues to have a soft spot for “Miss Hardie,” insisting, “This is not a sinister window.” He is devoted to keeping the chapel, no longer used for weekly services, in good repair. It receives no ongoing funding from the Anglican diocese or any government agency and earns income through wedding rentals, fundraising and $5 tours. Hill would like to see the number of tours increase from 3,000 to 10,000 annually and is especially keen to have more Aboriginal student groups visit. “Many of them don’t know that this is our story, that it’s part of our heritage as Mohawks and Six Nations,” he says, waving at the images in the stained glass. “Each one of these windows could be a PhD topic.”

Anne Bokma is a freelance journalist in Hamilton.

Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer.
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