Calls for archeological dig for possible children’s graves at Montreal SAQ distribution centre

“We’re looking for our children," says Kwetiio, a member of the Mohawk Mothers demanding an archaeological dig at Montreal's SAQ distribution centre, formerly a cemetery. They believe children may be buried there. Alyssia Rubertucci reports.

The Kanien’keha:ka Kahnistensera, known as the Mohawk Mothers, are renewing calls for an archaeological dig at the SAQ’s Montreal distribution centre.

The provincial crown corporation responsible for alcohol sales halted its excavation work as part of an expansion project after the Mohawk Mothers, and the Committee of Duplessis Orphans Victims of Abuse sent them a letter saying remains of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children could be buried here. 

“We’re looking for our children and they’re looking for the people that they lived with and they could have been in this in this ground here,” said Kwetiio, a member of the Mohawk Mothers, at a press conference outside the distribution centre in Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

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

“I need to assist these gentlemen and all the rest of the survivors of the Duplessis Orphans,” Kwetiio said. “This ground needs to speak, so anybody that we can reach out to that can have a hand in making or facilitating this investigation to happen would be greatly appreciated.”

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

The Duplessis Orphans were often sent there.

They 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 and sometimes experimented on.

Many, like survivor Hervé Bertrand, suffered physical and sexual abuse in the church-run orphanages.

Hervé Bertrand, president, Committee of Duplessis Orphans Victims of Abuse. (Martin Daigle, CityNews image)

“In 1959, after an intense violation, I found myself at the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu,” Bertrans said. “One day, one of my friends was moving stretchers and bringing the children to the pigsty here. I was supposed to be there in the hole. A good Samaritan saved me.”

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

Official exhumation measures for the more than 2,000 bodies buried there took place at the end of the 1960s, before it became the property of the SAQ.

“In 1999, there was a massive expansion project that was led by François Legault who was then a minister which resulted in finding more human remains,” said Philippe Blouin, an anthropologist and interpreter for the Mohawk Mothers. “The SAQ back then said they were animal remains but there’s never been proof that was given and no closure for the Duplessis Orphans who were asking for an exhumation.

“Perhaps back in the ’90s and in the ’70s, there wasn’t ground penetrating radar (GPR) and the technology that allowed to determine the exact extent of a cemetery back then, so now it’s a simple request to use these means to respect these human remains that may still be here”

The Mohawk Mothers want oversight into the possible investigation.

“To be truly respectful and to have cultural monitors on scene, and to have our own archeologist oversee everything because after all, this is the land that I care for,” Kwetiio said.

The SAQ tells CityNews that they are developing an action plan for and that it’s still too early to decide on the continuation of the work. They say in a statement,  “One thing is certain: we want to do things well.”

The SAQ had previously told CityNews it decided not to undertake excavation work after receiving a letter from the groups.

“I welcome from the SAQ to reach out, to get in touch with us, we need to be involved and make it come out right,” Kwetiio said. “And have some closure for these gentlemen that are here.”

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

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