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Possible children's bodies in 'pigsty' cemetery from the Duplessis era halts Quebec liquor board excavation plans


Quebec's liquor board - the SAQ - has halted excavation work at a warehouse in Montreal after questions were raised about the presence of an "informal" gravesite - known as the "pigsty cemetery" - where children's bodies from the "Duplesis Orphans" era may lay.

A joint letter from the Comité des orphelins et orphelines institutionalisées de Duplessis and the Kanien'keha:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) advised the SAQ that its distribution at 1501 Futailles Street in Montreal's Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough is located on the former Saint-Jean de Dieu hospital which housed children in the middle of the 20th century, an era sometimes called "the Great Darkness (Le Grande Noirceur)."

"Despite a 'massive exhumation' of the cemetery in 1967 and the transport of the bodies to the Cimetière de l'Est, that became the Cimetière St-François d'Assise, further human remains were discovered during the construction of buildings for the Société des Alcools du Québec in 1975, revealing that not all the bones had been exhumed in 1967," the letter reads. "Further expansion work on the SAQ Distribution Centre parking lot in 1999 led to the accidental discovery of more human bones. The SAQ admitted at the time that 'its technicians and engineers had no particular expertise in forensic medicine.'"

SAQ media relations officer Clémence Beaulieu Gendron said that as soon as the SAQ received the letter, the excavation work was halted.

"One thing is certain: we want to do things right," said Gendron.

2,000 bodies in the 'pigsty cemetery'

Named after former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, the Duplessis Orphans were wrongly labelled "mentally retarded" by government doctors and transferred to a hospital for the mentally ill run by the Catholic Church from 1949 to 1956. Some children labelled orphans had living parents but were born out of wedlock or suffering severe poverty and surrendered to the church.

Some of these "orphans" wound up at the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu run by the Soeurs de la Charite de la Providence.

In a court document from 1980, sister Marie Paule Levaque said that about 2,000 bodies were buried in the cemetery there between 1873 and 1958 and that many were not claimed by their families.

Orphans commonly called it the "pigsty cemetery" due to its proximity to the community farm buildings.

"That's how the cemetery is called among the Duplessis Orphans; they call it the pigsty cemetery because very sadly, the children were put there in a pigsty with animal remains as well," said McGill University lecturer Philippe Blouin. "It just shows how in the mentality of the times and within this Catholic understanding of children born out of wedlock and orphans as being known as 'children of the devil' there weren't the same standards for respecting these human remains."

The two groups feel that there may still be Indigenous and non-Indigenous children on the site.

'Deep scar in Quebec's history'

Blouin is working with the two groups and said there has never been a public inquiry into what happened to the children who were part of the "deep scar in Quebec's history."

"There's been no admission of the guilt of the Quebec government in creating this situation," he said. "Orphans, back then, were not necessarily orphans, just a very small percentage actually did not have parents because all children born out of wedlock, would be taken by the state and so often given for adoption, or use for medical experiments, very sadly, especially psychiatry, at the time in Quebec."

Former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard offered a public apology to the orphans on March 4, 1999, but "without blaming or imputing legal responsibility to anyone."

The two groups would like information about the excavation work made public, for a qualified bioarcheologist to be present during any work, and also to have an Indigenous cultural monitor on-site, appointed by the Kanien'kehá:ka Kahnistensera.

"Given the high probability of the presence of anonymous burials of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children on the site, we seek to establish a collaborative archaeological and forensic protocol to protect human remains prior to excavation work," the letter reads.

A similar setup was arranged when excavation work was undertaken during the old Royal Victoria Hospital work.

"These survivors want closure and especially want protection of the evidence of what happened to them," said Blouin. "The Duplessis orphans are pairing with the Mohawk Mothers because they discovered a common history in the way that Indigenous children disappeared in Quebec health-care system, often their names would be changed, often taken as orphans, they would be bundled together with orphans." Top Stories

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