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Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera hold town hall to discuss investigation into site of New Vic project

The Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) held a town hall at Peterson Hall on March 26 to speak to members of the McGill community about their ongoing investigation into the site of the New Vic Project, where they fear there may be unmarked graves. The town hall came as part of a week of mobilization organized by various student activist groups, including Arts for Palestine, the Collective for Gender Equality, and Decolonial Solidarity. Other events included a tabling session, a poster-making and crafts session, a walk to the New Vic site, and a social mixer.

Karonhia’nó:ron—a McGill alum, incoming graduate student, and court-appointed cultural monitor in the Mothers’ investigation— who helped organize the town hall meeting, told The Tribune that they hoped the week of mobilization would help raise awareness around the Mohawk Mothers’ advocacy.

“I’m determined to inform as many people as possible about the Kahnistensera’s fight and McGill’s ongoing obstruction of the search for unmarked graves on school grounds,” Karonhia’nó:ron said.

At the town hall, the Mohawk Mothers sat down with members of the McGill and broader Montreal communities to answer questions about their investigation and explain their legal case against McGill, the Société québecoise des infrastructures, the Royal Victoria Hospital, the City of Montreal, and the Attorney General of Canada. Kwetiio, one of the Mothers, explained that since the investigation started, historic human remains detection dogs detected the scent of potential human remains by Hersey Pavillon in June 2023. Arkéos—the archaeological firm hired to carry out the investigation—then used ground-penetrating radar surveys were then used and found dozens of anomalies, as announced by McGill on Aug. 3, 2023. 

Kwetiio explained she feels a responsibility to ensure the land, which is unceded Kanien’keha:ka territory, is honoured and the investigation is carried out in good faith.

“That’s somebody’s daughter; that’s somebody’s child,” Kwetiio said. “It is a Kahnistensera’s duty to look out for the children and leave the land the way it should be for the next seven generations.”

Rajendra Kapila Basdeo, a coordinator for Kahnistensera Solidarity Committee, added that in his view, the Mohawk Mothers and McGill are proceeding with the investigation in differing ways. 

“Kahnistensera have always said that they are looking to find these children. McGill and [the] SQI have always maintained that they hope that they find nothing,” Basdeo said.

In an email to The Tribune, Associate Director of Media Relations Cynthia Lee stated that the investigation is still ongoing but asserted that no evidence of unmarked graves has been found thus far.

Lee also noted that McGill is actively pursuing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples by addressing the 52 calls to action set out by the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education in 2017. The calls to action are organized into five categories: Student recruitment, physical representation, academic programs, research and academics, and building capacity. 

However, Karonhia’nó:ron asserted that McGill’s actions towards the Mohawk Mothers have not been in the spirit of reconciliation.

“There is nothing reconciliatory about actively obstructing an investigation into unmarked graves of Indigenous children on land that McGill is actively occupying at the expense of the Mohawk people,” Karonhia’nó:ron said. “At every step of this journey, [the] McGill administration has chosen the path of most resistance.”

The university’s operations, including the legal battle surrounding the New Vic Project, are funded by various revenue streams including tuition payments. Kwetiio reminded students that they have the ability to influence the university’s actions. 

“I think as students [who] pay tuition […] you hold more power than you think,” Kwetiio said. 

The McGill Media Relations Office asserted that McGill is acting in the best interest of students in a written statement to The Tribune

“It’s important to note that McGill did not initiate the matter that has been brought before the courts. Rather, McGill is defending itself. Participating responsibly in the resulting legal proceedings, including seeking leave to appeal, is in the best interests of the university, including McGill students,”  wrote the Media Relations Office. 

Basdeo said that the Mohawk Mothers have seen growing support from students over the past couple of years.

“We started [the legal battle] about two and a half years ago and engagement has increased so much,” Basdeo noted. “McGill students are really doing an excellent job of raising awareness on campus, as well as putting pressure on the administration to really act in good faith.”

Karonhia’nó:ron echoed this sentiment and encouraged students to talk about the Mohawk Mothers and the New Vic project with people in their community.

“We have such strength in numbers,” Karonhia’nó:ron said. “We are reaching a point where the administration’s deflection tactics won’t work anymore. There is nowhere left to turn: Everywhere you look, there are masses of people standing together to hold this university accountable.”

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