McGill, News

Construction begins on New Vic site without consent from Mohawk Mothers

Content Warning: Mention of colonial violence.

Arkéos, an archeological firm hired by McGill, began excavating the Royal Victoria Hospital site as part of McGill’s New Vic project, on Oct. 12. The firm is investigating claims that there may be unmarked graves of Indigenous children on or near the property.  Arkéos broke ground without the consent of the Kanien’kehà:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers), who raised concerns about unmarked graves in October 2021. The Mothers are also embroiled in an ongoing lawsuit against McGill over the potential burial site. The next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 26.

Following the most recent hearing for the lawsuit, the Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI) postponed archeological work until an information session could be held with Arkéos. The session took place on Oct. 6.

According to the Mothers, the meeting was unusual from the moment they were belatedly invited. Karennatha, one of the Mothers, explained that there was misinformation given about the location and timing of the meeting, as well as who would be attending.

“The [information session] we went to, it was all lies,” Karennatha said. “First of all, they reported that they had the meeting at the Long House, and it was actually in the [Elder’s Lodge]. Then, they said that there were [30 to 40 Indigenous] people there who went to that meeting [….] There were four people there.” 

At the information session, Karennatha and Kahentinetha, another Mohawk Mother, posed two questions, after which they were escorted out of the meeting by police officers. 

“They were showing pictures of the grounds […] and [Karennatha] says, ‘Why don’t you show people the building where you murdered all our children? Show it to them.’ And I said, We wanna know what you did with our children. Where are they? What did you do with them? We know you have them, and you know you have them.’ And then they called the police,” Kahentinetha recounted in an interview with The McGill Tribune.

In the Mothers’ opinion, McGill began archeological work because the university believed it had consent from the Indigenous community, which the Mothers did not provide. 

“After this meeting, McGill claimed that they got [all Indigenous peoples’] permission, but [they got] only four Indigenous people’s,” Kahentinetha said. “And those four people work for the government, they are not on our side.”

In a statement to the Tribune, McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle stated that the decision to start work was made after consulting “all relevant groups.” In addition to claiming that McGill is adhering to all regulations regarding archeological work, Mazerolle asserted that Indigenous observers will be present on the construction site. 

“The Indigenous communities concerned were invited to information sessions about the methods used to identify and preserve any potential vestiges present on the site of the former hospital,” Mazerolle wrote. “[McGill] intends to follow the industry standard practice of seeking input from the Indigenous community and we have no intention of proceeding in a manner that would endanger Indigenous artifacts or vestiges.” 

The Mothers, however, claim that McGill’s behaviour towards them has been cold and uncooperative. Henry*, an associate of the Kahnistensera, explained that security guards were present on the construction site after the Mothers declared that they would be monitoring the work from the sidewalk. 

Protestors supporting the Kahnistensera occupied the New Vic construction site on Oct. 11 to denounce the coming archeological work. Police evacuated protestors by 3:30 p.m. the same day. Barricades and fencing were erected around the area soon after. 

When the Mothers and their team revisited the site on Oct. 12, the land was completely blocked off. There were active construction crews on site and the Mothers reported being interrogated by security guards and discouraged from taking pictures. Furthermore, the Mothers’ attempts to file an official police report regarding the crime of desecration of graves were unsuccessful, and their phone calls and visits to local police stations were met with hostile responses. During a phone call that the Tribune was included on, one police officer told the Mothers that workers would not have begun work without implicit legal approval.

“A graveyard is a private property and if there’s trucks working on the property, it is because the [property owners] asked them to,” one police officer told the Mothers. “For digging, you need to have a permit, and you need to go through the city for a permit. The things you are talking about were probably all done before they started digging there. They are not just digging.”

The Mothers also publicly questioned why construction began, as they noted that McGill and Arkéos are not complying with the Canadian Archaeological Association’s (CAA) guidelines for ethically conducting professional archeological work on unmarked graves. These guidelines include a framework for conducting remote sensing, as well as highlighting the importance of area mapping and bringing on Indigenous investigators. 

The Mothers believe that construction is being rushed in an effort to quickly destroy evidence of Indigenous bodies. Henry explained that this rapid start to construction represents a complete defiance of archaeological guidelines. 

“They have not used a single ground checking technique that they’re supposed to, according to CAA,” Henry said. “They are just rushing the work manually.”

While the guidelines are not legally binding, Henry explained that for McGill to break ground, the university must have received a mandatory signature from Quebec’s Minister of Culture, as required by law.

The Mothers filed an official complaint with the CAA on Oct. 13 outlining why they see McGill and Arkéos’ conduct as unethical and illegal. The letter called out McGill’s lack of adherence to their previous agreement with both the court and the Mothers: To halt archeological work until their next official court date. 

On Oct. 14, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executives issued a public statement in an effort to stimulate discussion about the dispute. In their email, the executives emphasized McGill’s failure to properly consult Indigenous communities about the New Vic construction, and expressed their belief that the university’s actions are driven by greed. 

The Mothers released a statement on Oct. 16 explaining that they are being falsely accused of organizing certain solidarity actions, such as an instance of vandalism of Arkéos property that the SQI reported to the judge appointed to their case. While the Mothers are appreciative of support, they urged demonstrators to consider the legal repercussions their actions may have on the Mothers—even if they are intended to support their cause—and emphasized their values of “peace and respect.” 

The Mothers’ next steps are tentative. They told the Tribune that they will continue fighting for justice, but that there is uncertainty over the Oct. 26 court date, where the Mothers had originally hoped to receive an interlocutory injunction to effectively halt renovation on the site until court proceedings had elapsed. As archeological work has already begun, the Mothers fear that the judge will argue that the need for an interlocutory injunction has been eliminated. 

Arkéos did not respond to the Tribune’s request for comment.

*Henry’s name has been changed to preserve their anonymity.

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