Mohawk Mothers call on SAQ to halt construction at distribution centre due to possible unmarked graves

"Very hurtful and insulting," says Kahentinetha, a Mohawk Mother, calling on the SAQ to stop construction at its Montreal distribution centre for further investigation into possible unmarked graves there, after work resumed. Adriana Gentile reports.

By Adriana Gentile

The Mohawk Mothers are calling on the SAQ to stop its expansion of its distribution centre on Montreal’s east end.

In a press conference at the site on Wednesday, the group renewed demands for further investigation into possible unmarked graves there, after the SAQ said last week that the archaeological inventory carried out there has not revealed any human bones and therefore continued construction work.

They say the SAQ is refusing to use Historical Human Remains Detection Dogs on the site, as was recommended by the Canadian Archaeological Association’s Working Group on Unmarked Graves.

Press conference at the SAQ Warehouse Site on May 15. (Credit: Brice Petitfils/CityNews)

The site in question 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. The Duplessis Orphans were often sent there, along with Indigenous patients.

“What’s happening today is that in 2024, the SAQ and the government of Quebec refuse to accept a minimal condition, which is, ‘Please, don’t do anything without being sure that there’s no human remains in there.’ Is that too much to ask?” says Frédéric Bérard, an associate at GBM avocats, representing the Duplessis Orphans.

“The way the voice of the orphans continues to be ignored, as was their demand for search dogs to be used as recommended by the top experts in this country, to make sure no grave will be desecrated or destroyed, was very hurtful and insulting,” says Kahentinetha, Mohawk Mothers.

Philippe Blouin, an anthropologist and interpreter for the Mohawk Mothers, says that “a cease and desist letter has been sent yesterday evening to the SAQ or the Mohawk mothers and Duplessis orphans are asking the SAQ to stop all construction work until search dogs can access the area.”

Lili Prud’homme, Director of Real Estate Development, SAQ at a press conference on May 15, 2024 (Credit: Brice Petitfils/CityNews)

In February, the SAQ halted its excavation work part of the expansion project to make way for an archaeological inventory. Bones and bone fragments were found, but they said they were of animal origin.

“These analyses, combined with the study of historical data, allow experts to assert with confidence that the bone remains found are of animal origin,” said Lili Prud’homme, Director of Real Estate Development at the SAQ at a press conference Wednesday. “They therefore confirm that there is no issue with the resumption of SAQ activities on this portion of the land.”

Prud’homme also said experts told them the use of human remains detection dogs is not appropriate for their site.

“We are surprised by [the Mohawk Mothers] comments, given that since the beginning of this matter and over the last 4 months, we have made sure to maintain a constructive dialogue and transparency with the representatives of the two groups,” said Prud’homme.

The SAQ says they remain sensitive to what these two groups have experienced and say, at the end of their expansion work, they plan to recognize the history of their property, and will work with the groups to determine how to commemorate it.

“We trust dialogue and understanding, that’s what we tried for,” said Kahentinetha. “Quebec will have to reckon with the way that their dead are being treated here because this is very alarming.”

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