Content warning: discussions of genocide, unmarked graves, dead bodies
On December 22, McGill Provost Christopher Manfredi announced that the university filed for leave to appeal a recent Superior court decision regarding archeological work on the grounds of the former Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH). The November 20 decision found that McGill and the Société Québécoise des Infrastructures (SQI) had breached the Settlement Agreement signed in April 2023 with the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers). The judge also called for the independent panel of archeologists dismissed in July 2023 to be reinstated.
In the announcement, Manfredi explained that the decision to appeal is “based on our view that the judgment made legal and palpable errors.” He also revealed that tuition fees would be used to fund the resulting legal fees, alongside other sources of revenue. McGill will present their case to the Court of Appeal on January 16.
“Participating responsibly in the resulting legal proceedings, including seeking leave to appeal, is in the best interests of the university, including McGill students,” Manfredi wrote.
At the centre of this dispute is the New Vic Project (NVP), described by Manfredi as “the most significant infrastructure project our university has undertaken since its inception.” The project aims to transform the RVH site into new teaching facilities for the university. Given that this project would require significant excavation, the Mohawk Mothers launched a case against the university and the SQI demanding a proper investigation of potential unmarked graves on the site. In particular, they were concerned about possible graves from the illegal MK-Ultra experiments conducted at the hospital in the 1950s and 60s.
According to Philippe Blouin, a McGill Anthropology PhD student working with the Mothers on this case, they are “appalled” by McGill’s announcement. They had hoped that the new Superior Court ruling would lead to what they would consider a thorough and culturally-appropriate investigation.
“For the Mohawk Mothers, the basic point of this Settlement Agreement was to confide decision making to this panel of impartial archeologists,” he explained.
The panel of archeologists was first created in April 2023 when McGill, the SQI, and the Mohawk Mothers signed the Settlement Agreement resulting from the Mothers’ successful appeal to halt construction on the site in October 2022. Upon creation, the panel was composed of three archeologists (Adrian Burke, Lisa Hodgetts, and Justine Bourguignon-Tetreault) chosen by the three parties involved. The panel’s mandate encompassed studying the history, topography, and built environment of the RVH site in order to identify appropriate techniques, with the aim of determining the presence of unmarked graves. Although the panel submitted a report with their recommendations on July 17, paragraph 17 of the Settlement Agreement stipulates that the parties must seek the advice of the panel if there is an “unexpected discovery.”
Blouin pointed out that what constitutes an unexpected discovery “is not defined within the Settlement Agreement.” For example, he believes that following the panel’s dismissal, the investigation made an unexpected discovery when a Historic Human Remains Detection Dogs (HHRDD) team reported a second alert on the site on November 5. However, he said that at the time, the SQI claimed that paragraph 17 could only be triggered if a body or unnatural burial was found. Manfredi wrote that an investigation of the area of the second alert would take place in Spring 2024.
Furthermore, Manfredi argued that per the Settlement Agreement, the archeological investigation does not need to be Indigenous-led. The Settlement Agreement does not explicitly call for the investigation to be Indigenous-led, but states that “the parties wish to agree in the spirit of reconciliation on the parameters of an appropriate archeological plan.”
The initial injunction ruling on October 22, however, did emphasize Indigenous leadership in this investigation. In paragraph 13, the judge cited the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 76 which states that “The Aboriginal community most affected shall lead the development of such strategies.” Although this call to action refers to cemeteries of residential schools, the Mothers and Special Interlocutor Kimberly Murray demonstrated the parallels between these two cases. In paragraph 16, it is confirmed that at the time of the October 2022 ruling, McGill didn’t challenge the Mothers’ assertion that “any work to locate missing Indigenous children must be led by Indigenous communities.”
Given that the original injunction called for the investigation to be Indigenous-led, Blouin said that “it was already a big compromise from the part of the Mohawk Mothers, in signing the agreement to say it should be the archaeologists, the experts, making decisions.”
Throughout this case, the Mohawk Mothers have made it clear that they don’t trust McGill and the SQI to carry out a proper investigation of the site. They have continuously raised concerns about possible mishandling of evidence, that McGill hasn’t shared raw data and archival records with them in a timely manner, and have even experienced harassment from a security guard while on the site. McGill’s Media Relations Office previously told the Daily that “information is shared between the parties as stipulated in the Settlement Agreement.” Likewise, Manfredi claims that McGill has “consistently and diligently” met the requirements of the Settlement Agreement.
McGill and the SQI have previously admitted in court that delaying the NVP has significant financial consequences, as every month of delay allegedly adds $2 million to the total cost of the project. Additionally, President Deep Saini has warned that proposed tuition increases by the Quebec government could compromise their ability to fund infrastructure projects.
The parties will meet in the Court of Appeal on January 16 to determine if McGill will be able to proceed with their appeal.
Due to employee absences, neither McGill nor the SQI were able to respond to media requests before the date of publication.