Kanien'kehá:ka elders win fight for injunction to stop work at Montreal's old Royal Vic hospital

A group called the Kanien'kehá:ka kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers), believe there may be unmarked graves of Indigenous children on or near the site following CIA-funded brainwashing experiments in the 1950s and 1960s.

Decision sets a precedent for the country, says special interlocutor on unmarked graves

Kahentinetha, left, and Kwettiio are members of a group called the Kanien'kehá:ka kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers), that has been fighting for the suspension of work on the site of the former Royal Victoria Hospital. The group believes there may be unmarked graves of Indigenous people on or near the site. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC News)

A Quebec Superior Court judge has granted an emergency injunction to stop excavation work on the old Royal Victoria Hospital site in Montreal as requested by a group of Kanien'kehá:ka elders.

The group, called the Kanien'kehá:ka kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers), believes there may be unmarked graves of Indigenous people, including children, on or near the site following CIA-funded brainwashing experiments in the 1950s and 1960s.

They say the site may also house archeological remains from the first pre-colonial Iroquois village.

The group filed a civil suit in March demanding the suspension of McGill University's redevelopment plans for part of the former hospital.

After two days of hearings this week, a judge issued an oral decision Thursday afternoon in the group's favour, granting the emergency, temporary injunction they requested.

Kahentinetha, who is part of the group and a member of the Bear Clan in Kahnawà:ke, said when the decision was read, a lawyer turned around to tell her that she had just made history. 

"We were so excited. We couldn't even understand what had happened," said Kahentinetha, whose group has been demanding the suspension of the redevelopment plans for the past year. She said the win signifies dignity for her people. 

"It maybe represents that this whole issue of the genocide that happened to us, which has been pushed under the rug, is going to come back out now, because now we have the means," said Kahentinetha. 

McGill University's plan to transform part of the hospital into an academic centre will be paused for three to four months. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A landmark decision

Kimberly Murray, a federally-appointed independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites, called this a landmark decision for Canada.

"It was a really significant decision yesterday — a very significant case for the entire country," said Murray, who was a third-party intervenor in the hearings, in an interview with CBC News.

"We have situations that are happening across Turtle Island, where similar things are happening, where communities are trying to stop developers until they do the search. Now we have a decision of a court that expresses the importance of taking the time of talking to each other … so that we don't continue to have these disputes moving forward." 

WATCH | Special interlocutor says decision sets a precedent in Canada: 

'A very significant case for the entire country'

1 year ago
Duration 0:42
Featured VideoKimberly Murray, a federally-appointed independent special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves and burial sites, says a Quebec Superior Court ruling in favour of a group of Mohawk elders to stop excavation work on Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital site could have implications across Canada.

The injunction — effective immediately — stops all excavation on the site for three to four months. Despite the case scheduled to be heard this week, work had recently started on the site. 

"That is not helpful for reconciliation," Murray said. "They could have waited until the court case was heard to determine whether to start putting the shovels in the ground. 

Kahentinetha and Murray hope the decision allows the parties involved to now meet out of court to negotiate a way to protect and respect the site.

SQI says all stakeholders informed of excavation work

When reached for comment by CBC News, McGill University forwarded all questions to the Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI), which is responsible for the revitalization of the site.

Francis Martel, an SQI spokesperson, said excavation in front of the Hersey Pavilion was completed Wednesday. It was done to connect sewer and water lines so as to make the building independent from the former hospital, he said.

Archaeological research was carried out before the work began, he said.

Archaeologists were on site during each excavation, as were invited representatives of the Indigenous communities, he said. A bioarchaeologist, who specializes in the study of skeletal remains, was also available to provide expertise, Martel said.

The SQI has held meetings with members of the local Indigenous communities and other interested stakeholders over the past few days, and everything was communicated through an Oct. 3 newsletter that was widely distributed, he said. 

If significant archaeological remains were uncovered, the work would have been interrupted and measures to protect the remains would have been applied, he added.

The SQI is developing a master plan for the entire hospital site in collaboration with McGill University, the Ministry of Culture and the city of Montreal, he said.

The SQI will also continue to keep Indigenous communities and all other stakeholders informed if other work must be done on the hospital site, said Martel.

With files from Sarah Leavitt and Jennifer Yoon