After nearly a month of waiting, the Mohawk Mothers (Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera) have been granted some of the conditions of a safeguard order that they had asked a Quebec Superior Court judge to approve.
“I think it gives the opportunity for our opponents to do the right thing,” said Kwetiio, who speaks for the group. “Every time we’ve been faced with something, we’ve tried to rectify it. And we have the energy behind us of who we are to continue to do that.”
On October 27, the group applied for a safeguard order to ensure compliance with the settlement agreement that McGill University and the Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI) had signed in April of this year. That agreement was intended to ensure that construction work at the site of the former Royal Victoria Hospital, which is currently being converted into a teaching and training facility, would be conducted in a way that was mindful of the possibility of unmarked graves at the site.
Initially, the terms of the settlement agreement maintained that a three-person panel of archaeologists would be mandated to advise all parties on the techniques and specialists required to identify any unmarked graves. However, the panel was disbanded in August, after contracts drawn up by McGill and the SQI – which the Mothers did not see – gave only three-month terms, meaning panel members were no longer able to work after the end of the summer.
The written judgement from justice Gregory Moore, which was released on Monday, November 20, reinstates the panel of archaeologists, a decision the judge describes as “an exceptional remedy” that is only issued in cases where the court is convinced “that irreparable harm will occur if the order is not issued.”
“I think that the judge saw in a very clear way that the very basic notion of this agreement was to hire this panel to balance the different interests in the name of their scientific knowledge,” said Philippe Blouin, an anthropologist who works with the Mothers and translates live any French arguments for them in court.
“Once the panel is put back into place, we’re confident that we can recover a credible investigation,” he said. “It’s very good news for sure.”
Kwetiio said that a thorough investigation can only be possible with the involvement of the expert panel and said she was relieved to hear that Moore had decided to reinstate it.
“We need the panel so we can follow best practices and to discover what happened to our children, and whoever was in those institutions,” she said. “We’re really happy that this came about, (Moore) saw all of what we put in there, and saw that it’s important.”
The decision took longer than some had initially expected. Kwetiio said that though it’s been a nerve-wracking few weeks, she has remained optimistic.
“It’s been a real whirlwind this last week. Some of us were thinking, ‘Oh my god, what does this mean, that he’s not getting back to us?’ But I know what we put forward in that court, and I was very confident about it,” she said. “It’s been hard to watch construction happen while we’ve been waiting, but in my mind, I thought that something good was going to happen.”
One part of the Mothers’ request was not granted – the request for work to be halted at the site. In his decision, Moore explained that with the panel reinstated, halting work will not be necessary. However, Blouin said this still leaves the door open for further missteps by the SQI and McGill with regards to the area.
“We want to halt the construction for the time necessary to put the panel in place. There’s no (deadline) in place, so what would it mean if we have to wait weeks for McGill to respond to this, and during that time, all this work is being done?” he said.
Blouin noted that though the Mothers have asked McGill and the SQI to pause work as a courtesy, they have not received any response or communication from them.
“Our main concern right now is really the speed with which (the panel can be implemented),” he said. “They’re able to plan things enough so they can continue to excavate things, so we want them to put their priorities in the right place while we work to bring back the panel.”
Kwetiio shared similar concerns about construction on-site. The panel, which is made up of people agreed upon by the SQI, McGill, and the Mothers, is meant to guide all parties through the construction process, which Kwetiio hopes can facilitate more transparency going forward.
“We would really like to just be privy to what their plans may be. If they’re planning on doing something and it doesn’t make sense, we would like to have our opinion in there and see what the panel has to say about that,” she said. “Perhaps it might interfere with some evidence or could hinder the investigation. This panel being there is truly integral in all of this.”
Though Kwetiio previously said in court that she had lost hope in the investigation thus far, she now said that the reinstating of the panel changes things.
“We’re really trying to keep that optimism and know that our children are guiding us, and that there might be people who are there and want to be found,” she said. “In the best world, nothing would be found. But we need to know, because there’s too much evidence to deny (the possibility).”
Michel Proulx, a spokesperson for McGill University, said they plan to study the decision in greater detail and will provide an update on their stance in due course, adding that work at the site will continue in the meantime.
A spokesperson for the SQI, Anne-Marie Gagnon, also said they would be taking time to analyze the judgement and reiterated that “work can continue without interruption, the request to suspend the work having not been accepted.”
The Mothers will be back in court next Friday, December 1, to discuss matters related to archives concerning patients at the former hospital.
This article was originally published in print on Friday, November 24, in issue 32.47 of The Eastern Door.