After facing McGill and the Société Quebécoise des Infrastructures (SQI) in court on October 27, the Mohawk Mothers (also known as the Kahnistensera) have finally received an answer to their bid to stop the ongoing excavation work on the grounds of the Royal Victoria Hospital. On November 20, Justice Gregory Moore granted the Mothers a safeguard order, a judgement dealing with a highly urgent matter, and issued a judgement obliging McGill and the SQI to follow the Settlement Agreement established in April. He also reinstated the independent panel of archaeologists which McGill disbanded in July. Justice Moore decreed that the Kahnistensera face “irreparable harm” if the excavation continues without the guidance of the panel.
“We’re very, very happy, because this means we were right,” said Mohawk Mother Kwetiio in an interview with the Daily. “It just needed to happen because there could be irreparable harm if it continues in this manner.”Justice Moore argued that following the disbandment of the expert panel of archaeologists, the Mohawk Mothers were put in the same position as when they appeared in court in 2022. Without the existence of the panel, he argued that the Kahnistensera wouldn’t be appropriately consulted in the investigation and that the findings wouldn’t be communicated to them in a transparent manner. Once reinstated, the panel, composed of an archaeologist chosen by each of the three parties, will analyze the evidence found since July 17 to thoroughly investigate the possibility of unmarked graves.“What’s really important in this judgment is that it shows that because an institution is, legally in the colonial system, the owner of the land, it’s not sufficient for them to lead an investigation on unmarked graves on that land,” said Philippe Blouin, a McGill Anthropology PhD student who worked closely with the Kahnistensera on this case. “It has to be someone else—a third party, independent experts—but it can’t be those suspected to be the perpetrators of a crime.”
The Kahnistensera and their allies remain hopeful that the investigation into potential unmarked graves at the Royal Victoria Hospital will be conducted in a thorough and culturally appropriate manner. However, they anticipate facing hurdles along the way. One concern is that work on the site has not stopped despite the court order.
In an email sent to McGill students, Provost Christopher Manfredi wrote that McGill “will study the decision and its implications more fully in the days to come.” He also explained that “as per the court’s decision, the work at the site may continue.” In section 44 of the ruling, the judge stated that it was not necessary to suspend work at the New Vic until the panel recommended resuming it.
McGill and the SQI are reluctant to delay the excavation work as it may have significant financial consequences for them. They claimed in court that each month of delay increases the cost of the project by $2 million. Nonetheless, the judge ruled that these financial losses do not override McGill and the SQI’s responsibilities under the Settlement Agreement, especially in light of the “irreparable harm” their actions could cause for the Kahnistensera.
Throughout their legal struggle, the Kahnistensera received significant support from McGill students, as well as other Montreal activist groups. When talking to the Daily, another Mohawk Mother, Kahentinetha expressed her gratitude for the solidarity that students showed towards the Kahnistensera. “I would like to tell all your people, your young people at the university, that standing with us takes a lot of courage. I appreciate that very much,” she told the Daily.
The current safeguard order will be in effect until March 1, 2024.