Possible children’s graves suspends expansion work at Montreal SAQ distribution centre

“These children need to be put to rest,” said Kwetiio, one of the Kanien’keha:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers), when speaking about possible unmarked graves at an expansion site for the Montreal SAQ distribution centre. Gareth Madoc-Jones reports.

The SAQ paused expansion work at its Montreal distribution centre after two groups say the site may contain the unmarked graves of children.

The Kanien’keha:ka Kahnistensera, also known as the Mohawk Mothers, and the Committee of Duplessis Orphans Victims of Abuse are requesting an archaeological dig. They say the remains of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children could be there.

“That’s what needs to happen, the right thing, and the right thing is doing a proper investigation and respecting these people,” said Kwetiio, a member of the Mohawk Mothers.

“If all of the powers that cooperate and have this investigation done as best practices, and then that’s what we would like to have happen, where we can monitor things and if things are found, we can do our proper protocols.”

SAQ distribution centre on Futailles Street in Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Feb. 9, 2024. (Gareth Madoc-Jones, CityNews)

The site in question – on Futailles Street in Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve – was used as an informal cemetery for the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu asylum during the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

“It was the Duplessis Orphans who at first, they visited the site, they regularly go to that site because they remember that it was an informal cemetery that at some time had more than 2,000 people interred there,” said Philippe Blouin, an anthropologist and interpreter for the Mohawk Mothers.

The two groups sent a letter to the SAQ, the provincial Crown corporation responsible for alcohol sales in Quebec, on Jan. 8.

The SAQ tells CityNews it decided not to undertake excavation work after receiving the letter, adding it was establishing an “action plan.”

Sign for construction site at SAQ distribution centre on Futailles Street in Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Feb. 9, 2024. (Gareth Madoc-Jones, CityNews)

“A portion of our land had previously served as a cemetery for the former Saint-Jean-de-Dieu hospital, located nearby,” the SAQ wrote in a statement. “Official exhumation measures were also undertaken on this land at the end of the 1960s, before it became the property of the SAQ.

“One thing is certain: we want to do things properly.”

The former cemetery is referred to as the “pigsty” cemetery because it was also a pigsty during the same time.

Many of the human remains were exhumed during the 1960s, but it’s believed there still could be unmarked graves, notably of Duplessis Orphans and of Indigenous children. The Duplessis Orphans were several thousand children who were wrongly certified as mentally ill by the Quebec government and put into psychiatric institutions in the 1940s and ‘50s. They also suffered abuse in certain church-run orphanages.

Members of the Duplessis Orphans group demonstrate outside the Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal, Friday, April 2, 2010 where they called for an apology from the Catholic church and for more compensation for sexual abuse victims.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

“We found evidence that there were several Indigenous people who were within that hospital, Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, and within many orphanages,” Blouin said.

“There’s children that were buried without honour, without respect, with living a life that was very full of horrors, full of things that are unspeakable, and these children need to be put to rest,” added Kwetiio.

Digital rendering of SAQ distribution centre expansion plans. (Submitted by: SAQ)

The SAQ announced in February 2021 plans to expand their current Montreal distribution centre with a new 200,000-square-foot facility. The project has since been downgraded to 110,000 square feet.

“The expansion is for the wine, beer and spirits products that they need a huge warehouse for it,” said Kahentinetha of the Mohawk Mothers.

“And so it kind of hurts to know that that’s what they’re going to do with the land.”

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