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Mohawk Mothers fear potential unmarked graves could be damaged at old Royal Vic site

After losing their bid to stop construction at the site of a former Montreal hospital, a group of Indigenous women who believe there could be unmarked graves there say they fear evidence could be compromised if construction work continues.

Workers want to move piles of material -- without sorting it -- that were excavated from an area where sniffer dogs indicated remains might be located, a spokeswoman for the group known as the “Mohawk Mothers” said Monday, addressing reporters.

Moving these materials without first analyzing them risks making it more difficult to find potential bodies at the site, where McGill University is expanding its downtown campus, said Kwetiio, who uses only one name.

“You want to recover remains that need to be examined, that need to be investigated, and you want to just pick them up and throw them on a truck and move them somewhere else?” she asked. “Well, what happens if you find something in that pile somewhere else? You will have already started your construction here, jeopardizing the evidence.”

Last month, the Mohawk Mothers failed to obtain an emergency court order to stop excavations on part of the site previously occupied by the Royal Victoria Hospital, where a psychiatric institute was located.

The Government of Canada is named in a class action lawsuit filed in 2019 that alleges the state funded abusive psychiatric experiments -- part of the infamous MK-ULTRA program -- on vulnerable patients at the institute in the 1950s and 1960s.

Kwetiio says people who were at the psychiatric hospital saw children tied to beds and chairs and that the remains of these children may have been buried at the site.


The Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI), which is overseeing the campus expansion project, said the piles are being moved at the request of archaeologists, who want to sort the materials in a safer, quieter location, out of the way of construction.

“The earth is moved one pile at a time, to avoid mixing. One archaeologist supervises the loading of the truck, while another supervises the unloading. Each pile is clearly identified and a priority screening procedure has been developed,” spokesperson Anne-Marie Gagnon wrote in an email Monday, adding that the piles are covered with a weather-resistant material to protect them from the elements.

The SQI and McGill University say they are honouring an agreement reached with the Mohawk Mothers.

“Cultural monitors appointed by the Mohawk Mothers had access to the site for all phases of the work,” McGill spokesperson Michel Proulx wrote in an email on Monday.

“To date, no evidence has been found to support the presence of unmarked graves.”

Kwetiio says McGill and the SQI are not acting in good faith. She says McGill and the province have committed to thoroughly searching, within a 10-metre radius, areas where sniffer dogs have reported human remains could be found -- but that's not happening.

“We are being prevented from carrying out a proper investigation,” she said.

Kahnesatake elders with the Mohawk Mothers group arrive at Superior Court Thursday, September 14, 2023 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz


An observer affiliated with the Mohawk Mothers recently discovered what appears to be the leather sole of a child's shoe at the site, according to Kwetiio. When the shoe was returned, the mothers were informed -- much to their surprise -- that bones had also been discovered.

“We are not told when things are found,” she stressed, adding that she had not been given any details about where the bones were, or whether they came from a human or an animal.

McGill says that according to am archaeologist who excavated the site, the remains came from an animal.

“The archaeological firm also confirmed that it does not consider any of the objects discovered during the excavations to constitute significant discoveries, nor that they constitute evidence of human remains or graves,” added Proulx.

Archaeological digs were carried out in the area where dogs identified the possibility of human remains, as well as in nine other areas where ground-penetrating radar suggested the possible presence of unmarked graves, he said.

The Mohawk Mothers’ legal proceedings against McGill and the province began in March 2022, when they filed a civil suit to stop construction. Last October, they obtained an injunction ordering a pause in excavation work, as a judge ruled that the renovations could cause irreparable harm. After several mediation sessions, the Mothers and McGill reached an agreement on April 6.

The agreement states that, if no grave is immediately found, excavation work can begin continuously and sensitively, should there be an unexpected discovery. Cultural monitors are also allowed on site to observe.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 2, 2023 Top Stories

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