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Mothers force Royal Vic dig halt

Courtesy Emma Bainbridge

As the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) close out two days in Quebec’s Superior Court this week, a judge has ruled that the archaeological firm Arkéos must stop digging at the Royal Victoria Hospital site so investigations into the possibility of unmarked graves can take place.

The Kahnistensera called six defendants to court regarding the excavations – including McGill University and the Attorney General of Canada – which the judge ruled must be paused so that discussion can be meaningfully facilitated between the Mothers and those responsible for the excavation site.

The Mohawk Mothers brought the case to court to request an interlocutory injunction to stop excavations until proper consent and process has been considered. Archeological firm Arkéos began digging at the site last week.

The court sessions kicked off on Wednesday with nearly half an hour wasted changing courtrooms. Though the case was meant to be heard in a room with a large gallery space, occupants were moved to a significantly smaller courtroom.

By 9:30 a.m., the room was overflowing, with members of the gallery forced to sit on the floor to witness the case.

“This is problematic, respectfully,” said Julian Falconer, lawyer for Special Interlocutor Kimberly Murray. “As I speak, for the record, we see more people trying to cram in…I really ask if you can consider recessing briefly.”

The judge refused to recess, and the case stayed in the smaller room for the duration of the hearings. Members of the public remained seated on the floor, despite Falconer’s highlighting of potential fire-code violations, and the fact that the court knew of public interest in the case prior to the day.

“It’s to be expected,” said Kwetiio, one of the Kahnistensera. “I don’t let those small things phase me.”

As Kwetiio took to the stand, she outlined the importance of the case.

“We are doing this for our people to know the truth, which is the first step towards reconciliation,” she said. “At stake is Indigenous Peoples’ trust in Canada and Quebec’s commitment to stop the genocide.”

“We are treated as if we are immigrants on our own land, but we are not. “We are Kanien’kehá:ka people,” she told the court.

The plaintiffs argued that they have no reason to trust the organizations involved in the excavation process.

“The issue is one of trust,” Kwetiio explained. “Can we trust the defendants… Can we trust them for respecting and maintaining the remnants of our history that are in our ground?”

Special interlocutor Kimberly Murray noted that this is a historic case, and the first of its type to be heard in a Quebec Superior Court.

“I was really concerned about the process, and about parties trying to discredit Indigenous people when they come forward with these allegations,” she said. “We know that their children were taken from Indian residential schools to other hospitals, and the Royal Victoria is one of those hospitals. The documents in the archives show that.”

Murray also pointed to one of the affidavits shared in court, where survivor of Allan Institute experiments Lana Ponting recalled seeing guards with shovels. The Allan Institute houses the psychiatry department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and was formerly used for psychiatric experiments such as MK-Ultra.

Pointing remembered living with Indigenous victims, who were also subject to psychological experiments using hallucinogenic drugs, among others.

“I found people standing over by the cement wall with shovels. There were rumours that there are bodies buried in Allan property,” the affidavit read. “And I believe some of them would be Indigenous people.”

Murray took particular issue with a claim made last week by McGill University’s deputy provost Fabrice Labeau, who noted in a McGill senate session that the site of excavation is in front of the Hersey Pavillion, far from the hospital itself.

He noted that this means the likelihood of unmarked graves being found is incredibly small.

“That to me doesn’t answer the question, because we know there are patterns,” explained Murray. “There’s been change to the land and the geography of the land, there’ve been changes of buildings and locations.”

Murray also explained that current excavations could be out of line with best practices laid out by the Canadian Archaeological Association, which have been particularly important since the discoveries made in Kamloops. Murray noted that the redevelopment project here began before that discovery.

When McGill’s lawyer Doug Mitchell took to the stand, he asked the court to trust the defence.

“Trust the process,” he said. “Trust McGill.”

The majority of the public in the gallery laughed at this request. Kwetiio found the appeal to give McGill a chance baffling.

“We have given them several chances,” she said. “I think they’re behind on their chances. And we don’t rely on chances.”

At one point, Mitchell gestured towards the Mohawk Mothers, saying, “I think it’s telling, judge, that there are only six plaintiffs here.”

He went on to explain that since the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) had not disputed the excavation and were not present in court to support the plaintiffs, the Mohawk Mothers’ demands were not reflective of the majority of the Mohawk people’s opinion. He suggested that the MCK’s absence at the case therefore meant that they opposed the Mohawk Mothers’ claims, essentially aligning the Council with the defence in court.

The Mohawk Mothers took issue with this claim.

“Each individual person that’s Onkwehón:we stands in their inherent right on their own,” Kwetiio said after the session.

MCK has expressed wishes to remain neutral since the outset of the Mohawk Mothers’ project.

“We didn’t want to be dragged into this,” said MCK chief Ross Montour. “This is not our project. We are not its proponent. McGill University is. SQI (Société québécoise des infrastructures) is. Nor are we the government of Quebec. Those parties need to defend their project, not the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.”

Montour explained that he has faced similar issues where media outlets have heavily coloured any statements about the case.

“It shouldn’t be presented out there that we approved the project,” he added. “What’s really distressing about the whole thing is that we tried to stay out of this as much as possible.”

The SQI criticized the “practical consequences” of an injunction preventing the continuation of archeological work on the site.

“If an interlocutory injunction preventing renovation was granted every time any hospital was involved in any type of psychiatric experiment involving Indigenous Peoples, we would have a problem,” a lawyer for the SQI said in court.

On the second day of the hearing, October 27, McGill’s lawyers reported that Arkéos had completed a brief archeological search the previous day, finding nothing of archeological significance and no bodies. However, the Mohawk Mothers did not believe that this invalidates the need for an injunction.

Falconer continues to remind the defence of the lack of precedent in this case.

“There is no law that says, ‘Here’s what one must do when past governments sought to hide the remains of children,’” he said. “I’ve never said this in court before, and I’m embarrassed I’m saying this, but we weren’t made for this. We’re failing.”

Kwetiio directed a final comment to the court. “Planting a shovel in the bones of our ancestors before you respect protocol, or respect us, is unacceptable.”


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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.