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A Panel with the Mohawk Mothers

Discussion about the New Vic case

On March 8, International Women’s Day, SSMU hosted a panel with the kanien’kehà:ka kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) to discuss their ongoing fight over land and human rights recognition. The talk was chaired by Nancy R. Tapias Torrado, a human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at the McGill Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism (CHRLP)

During the talk, the Mohawk Mothers discussed the New Vic case; their experience dealing with the Canadian legal system; the importance of raising awareness about the human rights violations and injustices that Indigenous people still endure; and their responsibilities and duties as Ka’nisténhsera’. 

Panelists began by defining the word Ka’nisténhsera’, or “life-giver,” which refers to women and mothers, and includes their connection to nature and creation. Ka’nisténhsera’ have a responsibility towards  Ienthi’nistenhah tsi ionhontsá:te’, Mother Earth, and to the tahatikonhsontóntie, the children yet to come. The Ka’nisténhsera’ then discussed how their language highlights their ties to the earth. Engaged in the struggle for Indigenous rights since the 1960s, Kahentinetha  added that “our language is the vehicle of our way of life”. During a discussion with the Daily, Kwetiio emphasized the importance of the role of women and specifically mothers: “Women have a specific duty of caring and nurturing [which] comes from their way of living. Ka’nisténhsera’ comes from the word O’nísta, which means the umbilical cord connecting a child to its mother and a community to Mother Earth.” 

When asked about their activism and fight in the New Vic case, the Ka’nisténhsera’ responded that “this is not simply activism, this is our life […] to us, it’s just survival”. In 2015, speculation started to circulate that there may be unmarked graves of Indigenous people, including children, present at the Royal Victoria Hospital site resulting from unethical experiments carried out in the 1950s and 1960s. On October 27, 2022, the Mohawk Mothers made history when Justice Gregory Moore granted them an interlocutory injunction to immediately halt “any excavation in furtherance of the redevelopment of the Allan Memorial Institute or the Royal Victoria Hospital.” This decision marked the first time in Canadian history that self-represented Indigenous people won an injunction without the use of attorneys, and instead based on their own governance system, the Kaianere’kó:wa (Great Peace). When discussing the New Vic case, the Mohawk Mothers agreed that “this is an opportunity for Canada and Quebec to have a new relationship with the people and the land.” 

However, the Mohawk Mothers emphasized the crucial importance of raising awareness and consciousness of our surroundings and of how we act. They said that “this knowledge will no longer stay silent […] if you know something and do nothing, then you are part of the problem.” They added that things needed to change. Kwetiios’s mother emphasized the fact that “being sorry is not enough,” to which Kahentinetha responded that “the word sorry is empty. In our language, there is no word to say sorry […] instead you make it right.” 

Finally, the Mohawk Mothers explained the necessity to uncover the truth and end these human rights violations by reevaluating the whole judicial system, which systematically reproduces injustices while giving the “illusion of empowerment.” The last question asked by Torrado was about their vision for the future, to which they responded that they would like “the land to be respected again, returning to a value system and stop taking things for granted.” They added that they would like women to be able to properly care for their children. Kwetiio said, “We will do whatever we have to do to have our dignity respected. Creation stands with us.”