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Construction to continue at Royal Vic site

Mohawk Mothers Karennatha, Karakwine, Kwetiio, and Kahentinetha speaking with reporters at the Quebec Superior Court.

A Quebec Superior judge has ruled construction by McGill University can continue along a section of land by the old Royal Victoria Hospital, against the wishes of the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers).

Though the judgement Monday didn’t go in their favour, the Mothers say they’re feeling hopeful. Next month they’ll be returning to court to fight for the reinstatement of a panel of experts previously ordered by the judge to investigate their allegations of unmarked burials there.

“We need to find our children, we need to find out what happened to them, and we need to find out who’s responsible,” Kwetiio told The Eastern Door. She spoke for the Mothers during much of the hearing in front of justice Gregory Moore last Thursday.

Five months after signing an agreement over how the search for remains should be conducted, the Mothers say they’ve been left with no other choice but to return to court. The university and province are refusing to cooperate with them, withholding key information and minimizing collaboration whenever possible.

Earlier this August, Societe quebecoise des infrastructures (SQI) disbanded the panel of independent archeological experts assigned to lead the search. “The panel needs to continue to be able to give its recommendations. There was no time limit on how long the panel was going to exist,” Kwetiio said.

The Mohawk Mothers say they believe that both institutions are attempting to kick them and the panel out of the investigation so they can cover up evidence of graves and maintain control of what information becomes public. The Mothers have testimony that Indigenous people were among the victims of CIA-funded brainwashing experiments conducted at the Allan Memorial Institute in the 1950s and 60s.

It was a tense three hours of debate at the court last Thursday between the Kahnistensera and the lawyers for the university and province. It took five days before judge Gregory Moore issued his decision.

Given McGill’s construction related to their new $850-million research institution is limited to just one section of land, Moore disagreed it stands to threaten the integrity of searches in surrounding areas adjacent to it.

“Irreparable harm must be relatively certain to occur,” he wrote in his decision issued on Monday. “Possible or potential harm does not warrant a safeguard order.”

In court, McGill lawyer Doug Mitchell said that the presence of unmarked burials was determined to be “impossible” in the area, due to it long being a paved road located over bedrock. He also insisted that McGill and the province are following the agreement signed in April to a tee. According to their interpretation of it, the panel had but a limited-term mandate to fulfill.

“The plaintiffs are trying to modify the agreement,” Mitchell told the court. “In our view, the experts panel’s role has ended.”

In a recent interview with The Eastern Door, McGill deputy provost Angela Campbell also countered the characterization that the university had “disbanded” the panel.

“The panel, in a way, is not disbanded,” she said. “The panel completed the first part of its mandate. And now, they’re meant to be a resource for guidance in the event of an unexpected discovery (of remains).”

Recommendations ignored

Other factors also threaten the integrity of the investigation, however, Kwetiio told the court. Many of the recommendations issued by the panel have gone ignored, she said.

The province has refused to share the ground penetrating radar (GPR) data they collected with archeological experts. Both institutions are also downplaying evidence contrary to their interests, she said, mentioning the scent of remains flagged by dogs by the Hersey Pavilion at the hospital earlier this summer. In public statements McGill stressed this technique can produce false positives.

“Calling this an absence of evidence is outright denialism and rejection of science,” Kwetiio told the judge. “They refused to share the (GPR data) with the Canadian Archaeological Association’s working group on unmarked graves, the top experts in Canada, for a peer review. This is McGill, a world-class institution, and the SQI, a public body from the Quebec government, doing this – refusing expertise and disbanding the panel to take over the whole investigation.”

The Mothers say they’ve also been denied entry into the pavilion, even though it’s within the radius flagged by the dogs. “For three dogs to find that, it really makes it an almost 100 percent finding,” Kahentinetha, who also spoke in court, told The Eastern Door.

Meanwhile, McGill contends the expert panel never recommended the building be searched. When reached Thursday, the SQI declined to respond to the claim the Mothers had been denied entry into the pavilion.

“The SQI and its partners are committed to carrying out archaeological research rigorously and in good faith alongside the company of experts in the field,” wrote Anne-Marie Gagnon, a spokesperson for the province. She added the results of the GPR report were shared with the Mothers.

McGill also emphasized it has hired archeologists to monitor all of the ongoing construction.

“The archaeologist will guide the operator to excavate cautiously so that they can document the different soil layers present, as well as any fortuitous discovery in an area that has not been deemed to possess an obvious archaeological potential,” the university wrote in statement Tuesday.


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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.