Content Warning: Mentions of death and abuse
On Nov. 20, Justice Gregory Moore ruled to reinstate the court-mandated expert archaeological panel that oversees the ongoing investigation into McGill’s New Vic Project site, where the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera’s (Mohawk Mothers) suspect that there may be unmarked Indigenous graves. The decision comes after the Mohawk Mothers’ last appearance in court on Oct. 27, during which they asked Justice Moore for a safeguard order to “ensure compliance with” the settlement agreement between all parties—including McGill, the Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI), the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH), the City of Montreal, and the Attorney General of Canada.
The panel—composed of three archaeologists whom the Mohawk Mothers, McGill, and the SQI jointly appointed—is responsible for assessing the site and recommending specific archaeological techniques to identify whether there are unmarked graves on the site. This process is known as “mapping.”
On April 6, 2023, when the settlement agreement was signed, all parties agreed to be bound by the recommendations of the panel regarding techniques and service providers, as stated in Article 13 of the agreement. On Aug. 3, however, the defendants unilaterally disbanded the panel, declaring the mandate of the panel to be fulfilled despite the Mothers’ and Office of the Independent Special Interlocutor’s belief that mapping is an ongoing process with no end date, a position they voiced in the last court hearing. Nonetheless, excavation and construction on the New Vic site have continued without the archaeological experts.
In an interview with The Tribune, Mohawk Mother Kwetiio explained that the reinstatement of the panel indicates Justice Moore’s approval of the Mothers’ interpretation of the agreement, and allows for the investigation to proceed in alignment with the Mothers’ wishes.
“This means this investigation will actually come back to best practices now. That’s what it means for us,” Kwetiio said. “For us, that’s a big victory, because that was the whole intention from the beginning.”
In an interview with The Tribune, anthropologist and associate of the Mothers Philippe Blouin expressed that the panel’s reinstatement will also allow for the Mothers and the court-appointed cultural monitors to be appropriately informed of updates in the investigation. Both parties are present during excavation on the site to oversee the investigation and ensure all techniques follow Indigenous protocols.
“Every time, these last months, when there’s work, [the Mothers] will be told [on Friday afternoon] there’s work [on the next Monday],” Blouin said. “We’re always running after basic information of what the plans are exactly [….] So that’ll have to change too because the panel will have to be involved in every step.”
In a written statement to The Tribune, the SQI explained that as the ruling does not halt work, excavation will continue on the site without interruption. McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle echoed this sentiment in a written statement to The Tribune, asserting that McGill will investigate the ramifications of Justice Moore’s decision in the upcoming days.
“We will study the decision and its implications more fully in the days to come. In the meantime, as per the court’s decision, the work at the site may continue. We will provide an update in due course,” Mazerolle wrote.
Blouin explained that the Mohawk Mothers believe that work should be halted until the panel returns to work, and challenged McGill’s decision to continue work in the interim.
“The only part of the judgment McGill mentioned [in its email to all students] is that work is not stopping,” Blouin said. “Yes, the judge didn’t issue an injunction that stops all the work, but it’s just common sense that we have to do this very fast. There’s a court order to bring [the panel] back. It has to be done immediately.”
Kwetiio believes that the steps that McGill takes amid this ruling will be critical in illustrating how the investigation will proceed.
“Whatever the response is from the university to this judgement is going to show the direction they’re going to take,” Kwetiio said. “Hopefully, it is in a spirit of reconciliation. I’m still remaining optimistic that people can, or organizations can, do the right thing.”
The next court date is on Dec. 1. The parties are expected to discuss the issue of archives and records related to the investigation.