Archaeological work at the former Royal Victoria Hospital site has once again come to a halt after a private security firm hired by the Societe quebecoise des infrastructures (SQI) were captured on camera harassing the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) and cultural monitors at the site.
In late June, cadaver dogs alerted to evidence of human remains at the site, which the Mothers suspect include the unmarked graves of Indigenous children.
The Eastern Door viewed the video, which shows a blonde woman who works for private security firm Commissionnaires du Quebec confronting the group. Two other security guards are present but do not speak with the Mothers.
“Go and get a life, go get a husband … go have some kids, get yourselves a life because I think you don’t have lives,” the unnamed security guard says to the Mothers, who were packing up to leave the site at the time.
The guard also said that she had called the police to remove the Mothers, and they were on their way.
“Go back to your kids if you have any, I don’t think you have any of that,” the woman continues to shout as they leave.
Kahentinetha, one of the Mothers, then said to the woman, “What about our kids
that were murdered and that you’re benefiting from?” to which the security guard replied “That’s right: we’re benefiting from it, that’s exactly right.”
Earlier this year, the Mothers were granted the right to monitor the work taking place at the site alongside designated cultural monitors that they selected. Members of the group attend the site during every day of archaeological work to ensure the area is being appropriately respected during the dig.
“All of the land that’s exposed that they’ve been digging is sitting there, and its forensic integrity is being degraded every minute that it’s being exposed and not being sifted through,” said Kwetiio.
The footage, filmed on the afternoon of July 25, was taken after a cultural monitor and Kahentinetha went up the hill that the site is located on to speak to the three security guards and ask them who they were working with. Kwetiio then saw Kahentinetha coming down the hill, telling the group that security had called the police.
Kwetiio and Philippe Blouin, a translator and anthropologist who works with the Mothers, then went up the hill to investigate. Blouin began filming, at which point the security guard had grabbed his phone from his hand, yelling that she didn’t consent to being recorded.
“She said ‘if you don’t leave here right now, I’m calling the police, because unless you show me a court order to be here, you’re not supposed to be here,’” Kwetiio recalled being told. “I said ‘Actually, I do have a court order to be here,’ and she said ‘well, show it to me,’ and I told her ‘I don’t have a copy of it, but it is on that phone you’re holding right now.’”
The security guard then passed the phone to one of the other security guards who deleted the footage from Blouin’s phone. A second individual with the Mothers began recording again from a distance, gathering the footage that was since shared with The Eastern Door.
As the group left, the woman began hurling insults at the Mothers.
“We left and just stood in the driveway wondering what just happened,” Kwetiio said, emphasizing that there were several elders present who were extremely rattled by the incident. “We couldn’t go back there.”
The group immediately contacted the SQI, which Kwetiio said had limited communication throughout the next week before eventually agreeing to meet eight days after the initial incident.
During this time, the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools, Kimberly Murray, became involved.
“I’ve been trying very hard to find out what kind of training these agents have, and in relation to that, what kind of Indigenous cultural competency training and anti-racism training they have, because in that video, it’s just racism, right? That person is racist,” Murray said.
Murray and Kwetiio attended a meeting with the SQI this week, and Murray directly asked these questions about the training the company’s 4,000 officers get. She also corresponded with Commissionnaires du Quebec via email and faced difficulties getting responses.
“To my senses, they have absolutely none. They can’t tell me the training,” Murray said.
Murray believes that an Indigenous-led security firm is essential to maintaining the cultural security of the site.
“I think there needs to be an understanding that this is sacred work happening on the ground,” Murray said. “It was clear that these people had no idea what was happening on those grounds and that the search is for deceased children and our burials.”
Both Kwetiio and Murray expressed concern about what could have happened should the police have actually shown up to the site. Though the security guard claimed she called them, no police ever came.
Kwetiio said that it was hard to remain calm around the woman, and she knows that should she have lost her composure, the situation could have escalated even further.
“I’m a very protective person, and I have a history of that … many times I have intervened. I’ve been physical, and this time, I felt like I was being baited. I felt like someone was knowing my history of being that person and looking for me to do something wrong,” she said. “It’s like they’re using everything they can to have us almost battle them back.”
Murray agreed, highlighting the police’s track record of racism when interacting with Indigenous people.
“We all know how the police service could have responded. It’s very dangerous. I completely understand why the cultural monitors don’t feel safe going. What could happen next time if they’re not able to stay calm?” Murray said. “If that had been me, I don’t know what I would have said. How dare they speak to the elders like that? I don’t think the SQI and the Commissionnaires actually understand the trauma they’ve caused by allowing these employees to work in this way.”
The Commissionnaires did not immediately reply to The Eastern Door’s request for comment. The SQI replied with a statement via email.
“We understand that the Mohawk Mothers may have felt they had to leave at this time. The Company condemns all forms of racism and aggression and considers the comments and behaviour of this officer in particular during the incident to be unacceptable,” the statement reads.
The SQI also claims they immediately took action after being informed and communicated quickly with the Mothers. However, both the Mothers and Murray felt communication was slow. The SQI confirmed that the woman in the video is no longer assigned to security at the site, though didn’t confirm whether or not she was still employed, and said they consider the incident “an unfortunate isolated event.”
Kwetiio said the Mothers will work to ensure that the important archaeological work can continue in a way that ensures the cultural safety of the site.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, August 4, in issue 32.31 of The Eastern Door.