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Mohawk Mothers defend Black Rock gravesite

Historian Donovan King is being supported by the Mohawk Mothers in his fight to protect graves buried under the Irish Famine Monument Park. Graves of more than 6,000 Irish famine refugees are buried there, as well as potential Indigenous ancestors who also died during the 1847 typhus outbreak. Courtesy Donovan King

After a triumph in court against some of Quebec and Canada’s biggest institutional bodies, the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) are now taking on another political fight, this time in regards to Montreal’s Irish Famine Monument Park, which sits atop a cemetery that the group says houses Indigenous ancestors. 

Recently, the remains of more than a dozen individuals were removed to insert a pylon for the new Reseau express metropolitain (REM) train system, leading to growing concerns about future developments at the site

The group is calling for a leadership review of the Irish Monument Park Foundation, whose mission is to honour victims of the Irish famine, to ensure proper decisions are made at a site they say could house Indigenous graves.

“If the public were to understand what happened, they’d be appalled,” said Kwetiio, who is one of the Kahnistensera. “It’s covering up things that shouldn’t be covered up. This burial site needs to be memorialized, not dug into.”

The Irish Famine Monument Park is home to the Black Rock, a large boulder that marks a cemetery where Irish famine refugees who died of typhus in 1847 are buried. It’s also believed that non-Irish ancestors, including Indigenous and Black ancestors, may be buried at the site.

The Kahnistensera were first approached about this issue earlier this year by historian Donovan King. King first started work with the Irish Monument Park Foundation in 2014 with a walking tour and blog posts explaining the history of the site. He explained that he’s since grown concerned about the foundation’s leadership, with one of the directors, Fergus Keyes, raising what King said are alarming ideas. 

When a petition circulated to remove a statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister who was responsible for the forced removal of Indigenous people from their lands, Keyes launched a counter petition, which was advertised on the foundation’s Facebook group. The petition, which shows publicly was started by Keyes, is still live. 

“I studied John A. Macdonald for 50 years, so I have a pretty good handle on who he was and what he did in his 50 years of political contributions to the country. I mean, when it comes to the First Nations, there’s definitely problems, but I think that might be cherry picking his entire legacy, which is quite broad,” Keyes said in an interview with THE EASTERN DOOR. 

“I think he may be slightly misunderstood by the public. You’re talking about a specific situation, but I don’t think that overcomes his entire 50 years of building the country and building the foundation.”

Keyes said he did not post the petition in the foundation’s Facebook group. He called accusations by King of sentiments of racism by the petition’s signatories “a disgusting accusation.”

“I’m certainly not a racist by any shape or form. It’s ridiculous. It’s a silly and ridiculous accusation that bears no resemblance to reality,” he said. 

Comments on the petition include direct references to Macdonald’s treatment of Indigenous people.

“One of Sir John’s perceived crimes was educating the aboriginals (sic). At the time they lived in small communities outside of the main hub… The natives were having a difficult time communicating with the Europeans and the number was growing. How was he to dictate them and not continue the isolation? I would like someone to come up with a better solution,” one comment read.

When asked if he would support the Mothers’ request for a leadership review, Keyes said he was unsure what their position was on the matter and that there had already been a blessing at the rock with a Catholic bishop, an Anglican bishop, a rabbi, and faithkeeper Ka’nahsohon Kevin Deer.

“Kevin Deer blessed the site in the Mohawk language as well as the other participants,” he said. “There was never the slightest controversy concerning this excavation.”

King maintains that Keyes’ role in the foundation is at odds with the ongoing project of reconciliation.

“It’s weird because some people in the community who are Irish diasporans kind of gloss over the colonialism because now they’re beneficiaries of it,” King said. “Now they’re saying, ‘Oh, Canada’s the best country in the world,’ but they don’t understand that it only is for them, and it’s at the expense of Indigenous people. It’s a historical ignorance.”

For the Mothers, this kind of sentiment in leadership of a site that could contain Indigenous graves is concerning. They are supporting King in demanding a leadership review to identify what players in the foundation’s leadership may be standing in the way of protecting Indigenous and Irish graves.

“It irked me that someone who was a person on the board was using the platform to promote (keeping the John A. Macdonald statue), because it’s contrary to our people, and it’s racist,” Kwetiio said. “Everything else I expected, but I didn’t expect the person who’s (involved in) the foundation to want that.”

The Mothers fear that without a leadership review, the site will be threatened with desecration by the construction of the REM train and other corporate projects. As caretakers of the land, they said the projects cannot go ahead without their consent.

“It’s a big no-no to be profiting off someone’s burial ground, and it also shouldn’t be destroyed in the first place,” Kwetiio said. 

Read further coverage of the Mohawk Mothers’ fight to search the Hopital de la Misericorde in last week’s issue.

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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.