Construction of an office complex in downtown Montreal was halted on February 15, due to fears that developers were building on an Indigenous heritage site.
Ivanhoé Cambridge, a real estate subsidiary of provincial pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, paused construction following a series of complaints to the municipal and provincial governments, as well as archaeologists, from freelance photographer Robert Galbraith.
The site, just south of the corner of Maisonneuve and Metcalfe, is a candidate for the disputed location of the St. Lawrence Iroquoian village of Hochelaga visited by Jacques Cartier in 1535. This visit is famed for being the first recorded instance of contact between Europeans and Indigenous people on the island of Montreal and one of the defining moments in the history of New France.
The site was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1920 because of its “potential archaeological resources, objects, and sites.” However, according to Galbraith, Ivanhoé Cambridge began digging foundations for the office building on February 11 without consulting an archaeologist.
“To assume that there is no archaeological evidence or human remains under the asphalt without an adequate investigation [shows] a total lack of concern [for], and [an] abandonment [of], this largely unknown period of Canadian history,” Galbraith told The Daily in an email.
When John William Dawson, a McGill geologist, first excavated part of the site in 1860, he found extensive human remains and pottery, and proposed it as the location of the Hochelaga village.
Anthropology professor and Dean of Students André Costopoulos spoke to The Daily about the site’s significance.
“Whether the Dawson site is Hochelaga is an open question, but clearly it’s a settlement very much like Hochelaga,” he said, adding that even if archaeologists proved that the Hochelaga village was located elsewhere, it was important to protect the site downtown.
“It’s a site that has cultural significance, not only [for] French Canadians, but for people from Kahnawàke, and people from other Indigenous communities near Montreal,” Costopoulos continued.
Accusations of neglect
Asked whether construction had begun because of a lack of interest in the historical and cultural significance of the site from the City of Montreal, Costopoulos argued that it was simply a case of the relevant authorities being ignorant of the situation.
However, in an email to The Daily, Galbraith said that neither the City of Montreal nor cultural organizations had objected to the construction project. He pointed out that other cities, including Rome, London, and Quebec City, have stringent building regulations in order to protect their heritage.
In reference to Montreal, he said that “various organizations are trying to rewrite history and disclaim people who have a great knowledge of history for their benefit.” He further complained that Montreal had a “wild west municipal government.”
Héritage Montréal, a non-profit that works to protect the “architectural, historic, natural, and cultural heritage of Greater Montreal” did not oppose the building project either. Galbraith accused the organization of deliberate neglect in its duties. Ivanhoé Cambridge, the developer, is a major financial sponsor of Héritage Montréal.
Speaking to The Daily, Héritage Montréal spokesperson Dinu Bumbaru rejected the allegation that an affiliation to Ivanhoé Cambridge had influenced the organization’s decision. “There is a perception that this is a site of Hochelaga – but this is a perception,” he said.
Bumbaru added that Héritage Montréal had come to a decision regarding the site following a McCord Museum conference in 2010, which concluded that the Hochelaga village was not on the site.
“If you were in their shoes, what would you say?” responded Galbraith after learning of Bumbaru’s comments.
“There’s more to life than [to] dig and destroy,” he continued. “But here, because of a political climate and greasy politics and stuff like that, and the almighty dollar, we’re about to sell our souls.”
Representatives of the City of Montreal could not be reached for comment by press time.