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Mohawk Mothers halt warehouse excavation

The Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) and Duplessis Orphans speaking with reporters outside an SAQ warehouse where planned expansion has been halted. Eve Cable The Eastern Door

Work has been temporarily paused at a Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) warehouse facility in Montreal, after the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) joined forces with another group to highlight the possibility of unmarked burials of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

“There needs to be reparations for this happening to these people,” Kwetiio, one of the Mothers said in a press conference outside of the distribution site on Monday. “For us, archival work is imperative to start this. That’s where it needs to begin, and a full investigation using best practices needs to happen.”

The Committee of Duplessis Orphans Victims of Abuse, who are campaigning with the Mothers for a full archaeological investigation into the site, are a group of survivors who were wrongfully taken to psychiatric institutions in Quebec during the 1940s and 1950s. There they suffered intense abuse at the hands of the provincial government and private institutions, including the Catholic Church.

They met the Mohawk Mothers during continued court proceedings concerning construction at the former Royal Victoria Hospital, where the group believes there may also be unmarked graves of Duplessis Orphans who were subject to experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute, also formerly at that site. 

“It needs to be a human right for these people to know what happened in their history,” Kwetiio said. “They didn’t live this for nothing. They lived this, and they’re survivors of it, and it just shows that there’s mass lands across our territories that need to be investigated.”

The site of the SAQ warehouse on Montreal’s Futailles Street, where the expansion is planned, was a known informal cemetery, often referred to as “the pigsty” by survivors as animals were also kept there. Court records show that more than 2,000 bodies were buried there and unclaimed by families, and in the 1960s exhumation efforts saw bones recovered. 

It’s understood that expansion projects in 1999 saw further bones discovered, which the SAQ said were animal remains, though no proof was provided by the SAQ or provincial government at the time.

Survivor Pierre Nadeau told reporters on Monday how children were taken from single mothers and confined to institutions where they were beaten and forced to do physical labour.

“Priests encouraged women to have lots of children; it was their duty as women. Unfortunately, when the mother died, or the father beat the mother to a pulp, what happened? Welfare came knocking and took the children away, took possession of the children because she wasn’t working,” he said. 

“You’re beaten up, you’re doing work at the age of seven, you’re cleaning up messes for children, employees, no pay,” he said. “In Quebec, I call that slavery. Children were exploited in these institutions.”

Kwetiio said it’s possible Indigenous children may also be buried at the site, as children may have been taken from those who had Indigenous partners, as those children were viewed as illegitimate. She said that the Mothers will continue to fight for the children who may be buried there.

“As a Kahnistensera it’s my duty in who I am,” she said. “I need to assist these gentlemen and all the rest of the survivors of the Duplessis Orphans. This ground needs to speak.”

Anthropologist Philippe Blouin, who often accompanies the Mothers and translates for them in court, said it’s crucial the ground is searched with advanced technologies.

“In the 1990s and in the 1970s, there were no ground penetrating radar and technology that could determine the exact extent of the cemetery. Back then it didn’t exist,” he said. “Now, it’s a simple request to use these means to respect these human remains that may still be there, so that they’re not found by accident, so they’re found in a respectful way that also respects Indigenous protocols regarding burials.”

In a statement to The Eastern Door, the SAQ said they are concerned by the information that the Mohawk Mothers and Duplessis Orphans shared concerning the potential unmarked graves. 

“Our intention is to do things right, and in the right order. That’s why we’re developing an action plan,” said spokesperson Clémence Beaulieu Gendron. “This will determine the next steps, which will be carried out in complete transparency.”

The Mothers and the Duplessis Orphans said that they had not received formal communication from the SAQ concerning the possibility of an archaeological investigation, but that the SAQ had immediately halted plans to start work upon notification of the potential graves, making them optimistic that a thorough investigation will be completed.

evedcable@gmail.com

This article was originally published in print on February 16 in issue 33.07 of The Eastern Door.

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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.