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Excavating Canada’s past with a newly critical eye

Eric Andrew-Gee, The Globe and Mail
January 22, 2018

He’s a broad-shouldered 6 foot 2, but Paul Racher walks softly and with an almost apologetic stoop through the grounds of an old residential school. It’s the gait of someone visiting a cemetery or a famous battlefield.

The Mohawk Institute was a bit of both during the almost 150 years it operated here, until it finally closed in 1970. Now, like many battlefields and burial grounds, it has become an archeological site. Mr. Racher is part of a team excavating it pro bono for the Woodland Cultural Centre, the Indigenous-run organization that has preserved the school for educational purposes.

The dig is a “reconciliation project,” Mr. Racher says, undertaken first by his own firm, Archaeological Research Associates, and then by the Ontario Archaeological Society (OAS) as part of the profession’s attempt, during Canada’s sesquicentennial, to bring its practices in line with the values and interests of the people whose heritage they dig up.

At the institute, Mr. Racher and his colleagues uncovered detritus from the residential school – old crockery, marbles, jacks – and then below that, evidence of habitation before contact with Europeans, including an arrowhead.

“So you had a happy Indigenous occupation, then a very sad one,” Mr. Racher says.

Schools such as the Mush Hole – so nicknamed for the oatmeal it served students with deadening regularity – have become synonymous with the abuse of Indigenous Canadians through government policies. But studying the building itself, still grimly imposing after all these years, makes the misery of the place vivid.

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