‘It’s like they’re trying to rush through it’: Mohawk Mothers seek to halt construction at McGill University 

McGill says the investigation for unmarked graves has turned up nothing.

A group known as the Mohawk Mothers was in court this week trying to stop McGill University and Quebec’s infrastructure society (SQI) from moving forward with a renovation of a former hospital. 

Excavation started up again at McGill University Sept. 11 for the New Vic project – a renovation of the old Royal Victoria Hospital led by McGill and SQI. But the Kahnistensera say that it’s too early to proceed with construction. 

“It’s like they’re trying to rush through it. We’re doing one investigation on one place, they’re trying to hurry to the next one, to the next one, to the next one. And so therefore, there was very, very little time, maybe a day or two before we knew that more drilling was going on,” said Kwetiio, one of the Kahnistensera.  

A dress, fragments of a shoe, and animal bones were found close to where cadaver dogs detected traces of human remains near the Hersey Pavilion, a McGill building that used to be the nurse’s residence for the old Royal Victoria Hospital.  Ground penetrating radar – GPR – scans also showed several anomalies on the grounds.  

 An agreement with the Mohawk Mothers, archeologists, McGill and SQI said a jointly-appointed panel of archeologists would determine which techniques would be used and would advise on how to proceed should anything be found. 

The archeology panel, made up of Lisa Hodgetts, Adrian Burke and Justine Bourguignon-Thétreault was established in the settlement agreement back in April to assess and recommend the use of different archeological techniques, and states that “McGill, SQI and the Kanien’keha:ka Kahnistensera will seek the advice of the Panel as to how to move forward” if any discoveries are made.”  

Despite the alert from cadaver dogs that potential human remains were detected on the site and a GPR report presented in July that indicated nine “potential” gravesites and several more irregular anomalies, McGill and SQI terminated the archeology panel’s mandate on Aug. 3, 2023. 

In an email statement to APTN, McGill indicated that the panel “delivered its final report on July 17, 2023. As such, it fulfilled and ended its mandate, as stipulated in sections 11, 13 and 14 of the Settlement Agreement.” In its own email statement to APTN, SQI said that as the techniques recommended by the panel had been executed and no graves had been found, that meant that excavation could begin, as stated in the settlement agreement.

Court documents submitted on Sept. 14 reveal that this was shortly after the panel recommended the GPR report be analyzed by the panel and peer-reviewed. An email read in court stated on Aug. 6, Burke replied to the SQI’s rejection to follow up on this recommendation stating, “This is very troubling. To be clear, this is contrary to what the panel recommended. It is imperative that the panel have a chance to look at the report and make its own informed interpretations.” 

The panel also recommended that the area directly beside the building where the dogs picked up the scent of human remains be searched thoroughly, which has not been done. Piles of dirt that were unearthed around the nine “potential” sites have also not yet been sifted through – another recommendation from the archeology panel – and have sat partially exposed for months.  

The private company Ethnoscop has been doing the archeological work, and with the panel’s dismissal, is now in charge of the digs. In an emailed statement to APTN News, a representative of McGill stated “We can confirm that all piles of soil at the site will be sifted through, despite [Ethnoscop]’s professional opinion that it is not necessary.”  

Read More: 

Mohawk Mothers say McGill University trying to ‘control’ process of search for unmarked graves 

Ground-penetrating radar search wraps up at McGill University 

This has left the Kahnistensera feeling as though the investigation into this area of the site is far from over.  

“What they’re putting out to their students and what they’re putting out in the press is their minimalizing [sic] it, and they’re making it like no, no, no, we conducted [the investigation]. They didn’t say whether they finished or whether they passed on the information, but it’s like they are trying to rush to get through a next stage and I don’t know why,” said Kwetiio.  

The group was in Quebec’s Superior Court with McGill and SQI on Sept. 14 to address what they see as a non-respect of their settlement agreement concluded this past spring to guide the searches on the New Vic site.  

Julian Falconer represented Kimberly Murray, the special interlocutor on missing children and unmarked graves at the superior court. In correspondence dated Aug. 10 to McGill and SQI’s legal representatives, he stated, “you and your clients have avoided collaboration whenever possible and are instead unilaterally pressing forward with excavation permit applications and terminating the panel in order to swiftly complete the process.” 

Kwetiio said the Kahnistensera have felt sidelined throughout the whole investigation. 

“This is meant to be a respectful investigation and it has been blown out of proportion in the means that they are taking every chance available to take gray areas that have not been fine pointed and manipulating them in a way to their advantage,” said Kwetiio.   

McGill University sent an email to their students, indicating “this stage of the work has not produced any evidence of human remains or unmarked graves.” 

In an email to APTN News, McGill indicated that the archeology company working on the site, Ethnoscope, said the dress – dating from the 1990s – and the shoe fragments, dating from the first part of the 20th century – and did not indicate they are not significant evidence of unmarked graves.  

In its own statement to APTN, SQI maintains they have respected the settlement agreement, and that there has been no evidence so far to suggest the presence of unmarked graves. 

Until the judge delivers his ruling, expected next week, construction will continue and so will the Mohawk Mothers’ search for answers.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story indicated nine “likely” gravesites were found by GPR. This should have been qualified as “potential.” A paragraph has been added detailing that McGill and the SQI chose not to renew the panel’s contract, rather than terminating their mandate.


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