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Archaeological Work Resumes at Royal Vic

Parties reach an agreement surrounding security at the site

The McGill administration has been making advancements over the summer to further the New Vic Project, a redevelopment of the former Royal Victoria Hospital into a new research and teaching facility. Since last fall, the Société Québécoise des Infrastructures (SQI) and McGill have faced heavy criticism and have engaged in a legal battle against the kanien’kehá:ka kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) over the likely presence of unmarked graves of survivors of the MK-Ultra mind-control experiments conducted at the Allan Memorial Institute on the Royal Victoria site.

Excavations of the Royal Victoria Hospital site were first halted in November of last year when the Mohawk Mothers won in court, but by the end of April, the injunction was lifted. The terms of the resumption of the project included an archaeological survey of the project site for unmarked graves as well as the presence of cultural monitors to observe the work and conduct ceremonies. 

Human detection dogs detected the scent of historic human remains at the Royal Victoria site on June 9. Following this, McGill announced a full archaeological investigation of the area which spans a ten-meter radius. This portion of the site is outside McGill’s project site which takes up about 15 per cent of the land. In a July 26 update surrounding the project, McGill disclosed that ground penetrating radar was used between July 10 and 12. In an interview with the Daily, Executive Director of the New Vic Project Pierre Major explained that this technique was in accordance with what the panel of archaeologists recommended to deploy on the site – each zone is colour-coded on a map to indicate which archaeological technique will be used. Last fall, the Mohawk Mothers repeatedly requested remote sensing technologies to be used on the site to protect any cultural significance that is buried. Now, as part of the agreement, the Mohawk Mothers are updated every two weeks on the archaeological techniques deployed. 

On August 3, McGill disclosed in an email sent to its students and faculty that there had been an incident regarding a security officer and the Cultural Monitors at the site. On July 25, a security guard at the site made offensive remarks towards the Cultural Monitors after the work day had ended. The security guard also inappropriately directed the Cultural Monitors to leave the premises. Since the SQI is in charge of security at the site, they took action against the security guard.

When asked about the security incident, Associate Provost Angela Campbell told the Daily in an interview, “We’ve […] been very categorical that what happened was unacceptable. It never should have happened, and it’s being dealt with.” Campbell did not provide any further detail on the subject but did note that the SQI hired GardaWorld, a new security firm. The August 23 update provided by McGill did not mention this switch of firms made by the SQI.

Archaeological work was halted for approximately three weeks following the security incident until McGill, the SQI, and the Mohawk Mothers could reach an agreement. On August 23, McGill announced that this had been achieved and archeological work would be resumed. As part of the agreement, the Mohawk Mothers were offered the opportunity to appoint their own security representatives to be present at the site. However, the appointees do not have the proper security licensing, so their purpose is to accompany the cultural monitors, according to Campbell. 

Now that archaeological work has resumed, the Mohawk Mothers continue to demand clear and efficient communication surrounding archaeological work. Blue netting was recently put up around the perimeter of the work site, obstructing the view from people passing by. Upon questioning the reason behind this, Major told the Daily that it is common practice to put up netting at construction zones for safety purposes to block debris from entering sidewalks or nearby roads and that this was approved by Pomerleau, the construction company at the site. Major noted that the netting was transparent, but he told the Daily that this was disputed by the Mohawk Mothers and that “[McGill] informed them on that same day that we would take it down.” When asked if the now-exposed construction site would be a safety hazard, Major responded to the Daily by saying, “we will have to put it back up at some point, but we will wait for archaeological work to be done.”

In early August, the Mohawk Mothers explained that they felt McGill was trying to “control” the process of finding unmarked graves, and they felt they were being excluded from much of the information. Kahentinetha, one of the Mohawk Mothers, told APTN news that the archaeologists on-site had been very informative, but there was often a delay in the Mothers receiving important reports. “The only way we can find out is to be right there, because we are not told and I don’t know why the material goes to them, and then they distribute it in the way they want and eventually we get a copy of it,” she said. “It seems like this is violating the court order.” 

Campbell told the Daily, “ [The Mohawk Mothers] are at the site every day, and so they’re getting kind of updates in real-time faster than [McGill]. But, of course, there’s also a requirement in the agreement that every two weeks there’s an update of every [archaeological] technique.”

The Mohawk Mothers are not the only ones questioning McGill’s actions and the New Vic Project. On August 28, SSMU sent a letter to the McGill community demanding transparency from McGill about the project. The letter deems the communication surrounding the New Vic Project largely inadequate, pointing out discrepancies between the information provided by McGill and the Mohawk Mothers about archaeological work. One of these discrepancies was about the findings of the ground penetrating radar survey which were published without the consent of the Mohawk Mothers. According to the report, nine potential grave sites were identified within the area that McGill intends to excavate. McGill emphasized that “potential” did not indicate that they were “likely.” Archaeologists also uncovered children’s shoes and a women’s dress which appears to date back to the 1940s. McGill failed to include this finding in their August 3 newsletter. The Mohawk Mothers have published a list of false narratives about the project on their website to provide clarity on the progress of the archaeological work being done. 

Campbell told the Daily, “there’s a lot of […] conjecture and attention [about the New Vic Project] which is normal and good.” She added that the project involves a “really crucial part of making sure that things are proceeding in a good way […] with Indigenous Nations that are close to the […] campus. It’s challenging, but we’re doing things very methodically, carefully, and with extensive consultation.”

The Mohawk Mothers continue to fight for better action taken by McGill and the SQI, writing in an August 11 press release that “the process can no longer by any means be considered ‘Indigenous-led,’ as the SQI and McGill attempt to control the whole process, reducing the role of Indigenous people to performing ceremonies on the site.” The Mohawk Mothers were hopeful that there would be “an amicable and open dialogue to resolve the disagreements in implementing the Settlement Agreement,” but Mohawk Mother Kwetiio states that, “it is not acceptable to our people that Quebec and McGill entirely control an investigation searching for the unmarked graves of potential victims of those institutions in the past.”

Archaeological investigation in priority zones is scheduled to be completed this fall, according to Major. Since no archaeological work can progress in the winter, Major told the Daily that work on the rest of the Royal Victoria site will likely resume next year.