Dance performance touring Ontario about former Mohawk Institute helps survivor heal

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

When Roberta Hill sat and watched performers from The Mush Hole dance on stage at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines on Tuesday, she saw glimpses of herself.

The name of the performance comes from a nickname of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont.

Kids who attended the residential school called it the Mush Hole because of the food there — the same food Hill ate when she attended.

“It’s pretty realistic … it brings back a lot of memories,” the 71-year-old survivor said of watching the performance.

“It can be very painful to do that but it’s also something you really need to do … it’s not our fault as children what we went through.”

The theatrical dance performance comes many in Canada reckon with the country’s legacy of trying to assimilate Indigenous children and families.

It also comes as ground searches are underway at residential school sites across Canada, including the former Mohawk Institute.

The performance is based on Hill’s experiences and those of other survivors.

Santee Smith, the creator, producer, director and a performer in The Mush Hole, says some of her relatives are also residential school survivors.

The performance follows three students, a mother and a father. The performance doesn’t include words, instead relying on movement and music.

“It’s beautiful, but it’s powerful,” said Smith, who runs the Kaha:wi Dance Theatre company and was also reappointed last month as chancellor of McMaster University in Hamilton. 

The production won five Dora Mavor Moore awards, presented by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, in 2020, when it had to stop touring due to the pandemic. 

The Mush Hole features an all Indigenous cast and is based on the experiences of Roberta Hill and Geronimo Henry — survivors of the Mohawk Institute. (Submitted by David Hou)

“I’m hoping that people will get a better understanding of the truth and experiences of intergenerational survivors. So the children that attended the school but also the repercussions that happened through families,” Smith said.

The show, she said, also highlights Indigenous resilience.

The performance will be in Kingston’s Grand Theatre on Thursday. It will then stop at:

  • The Sanderson Centre in Brantford on March 30
  • The National Arts Centre in Ottawa from April 13-16
  • The Rose theatre in Brampton on April 19 and;
  • The Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts on April 21

Each performance ends with a post-show chat with the cast.

“It’s an emotional time for us to be able to speak like that but I also find it’s really helpful for us, it’s part of that healing,” Hill said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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