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Mohawk Mothers seek halt to excavation amid former Montreal hospital grave search

September 14, 2023

Women say court-approved agreement is not being followed

The Royal Victoria site closed in 2015.
The Mohawk Mothers told the court that construction companies aren’t communicating with them about what they are finding at the site of the old Royal Victoria hospital in Montreal. (Charles Contant/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: A group of Indigenous women were in Quebec Superior Court on Thursday trying to stop drilling and excavation at the site of a former hospital where they say unmarked graves may be located, and where McGill University is expanding its downtown campus.

The women, who call themselves the Mohawk Mothers, accuse McGill University and Quebec’s infrastructure agency of failing to live up to a court-approved agreement on how the search for bodies at the site would be conducted.

The Mothers have said they have uncovered the possibility of graves, following interviews with survivors of mind-control experiments that took place in the 1950s and 1960s at a psychiatric institute affiliated with the hospital.

The government of Canada is named in a 2019 class-action lawsuit application that alleges the state funded the MK-ULTRA program, under which abusive psychological experiments were conducted on vulnerable patients at the site.

The Mothers told the court Thursday that the archeological survey of the area under construction is not being handled according to an agreement reached in April between them and the developers. Kwetiio, one of the Mohawk Mothers who made arguments in court, said the construction companies aren’t communicating with them about what they are finding at the site.

“If it was done in the spirit that it was supposed to be held to, then we wouldn’t have a problem,” Kwetiio said.

Two older women in a courtroom hallway
Kahnesatake elders with the Mohawk Mothers group arrive at Superior Court in Montreal.(Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The Mohawk Mothers filed a civil suit in March 2022, and last October they obtained an injunction ordering a pause on excavation work on the university-expansion project with a judge ruling the renovations would cause irreparable harm.

After several mediation sessions, the Mothers and McGill reached a deal on April 6. Cultural monitors are also permitted on site to observe. The agreement stipulates that if no graves are immediately found then excavation work can begin on a rolling basis and in a sensitive manner in case there is an unexpected discovery.

McGill University and the infrastructure agency told the court on Thursday that the Mothers’ request should be dismissed. Both groups said the agreement had been followed as it was drafted.

Construction work is being done in an area where no bodies are believed to be buried, they said, adding that the work should be allowed to continue even if adjoining zones require more investigation.

Justice Gregory Moore did not grant an emergency injunction on Thursday, but said he would likely render a judgment next week.

Sidhartha Banerjee · The Canadian Press ·