A group of Mohawk women overseeing a search for human remains on the grounds of a former hospital in Montreal say security staff verbally abused and evicted them from the site despite a court order authorizing the work.
The women are members of Kanien’keha:ka Kahnistensera, or Mohawk Mothers, a group that has been fighting in court since 2015 to halt a McGill University expansion project at the former Royal Victoria Hospital until it can be searched for burials.
They have collected evidence to suggest the grounds contain the unmarked remains of Indigenous patients who may have been subjected to drug-induced mind control experiments at a psychiatric hospital located there in the 1950s and 60s.
In October, 2022, a judge granted an injunction on construction until archeological work could be completed. Earlier this year, the Mothers struck a court-authorized settlement with McGill and Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI), the Quebec government agency that manages infrastructure, to carry out an archeological search at the location.
But the Mohawk Mothers said any goodwill created by the settlement has been undone by the actions of security personnel contracted by SQI. On the afternoon of July 25, three security guards approached five of the women on the Royal Victoria grounds and told them to leave.
“The one security guard was very hostile,” said one of the women, Kwetiio, who goes by a single name. “She told us we weren’t allowed to be there. I said actually we are allowed by court order.”
When someone tried to record the encounter on a phone, security staff seized the device and erased the clip, Kwetiio said. That’s when another person on the scene started a second video recording.
The video, viewed by The Globe and Mail, shows one of the Mothers objecting to their treatment, saying to the security personnel, “I think your company needs to reassess its workers.”
“I think you guys need a life,” responded a female security guard to the assembly of elders, who range in age from 51 to 83. “Go get a life. Go get a husband. Go get some kids. Go have some kids.”
One of the elders, Kahentinetha, said that Indigenous children had been murdered on the site, “and now you’re benefiting from these murders.”
“Exactly, we’re benefiting from it, that’s correct,” the guard responded in the video.
The elders, along with two cultural monitors hired as part of the settlement to ensure that the archeology work complies with traditional protocols, can then be seen leaving the grounds.
“I’m still in shock,” said Kwetiio in an interview with The Globe. “What happened here? Nobody will tell us.”
In an e-mailed statement, SQI said the encounter was an isolated incident and singled out one of the guards. “[SQI] condemns all forms of racism and aggression and considered the comments and behaviour of this officer in particular during the incident to be unacceptable.”
The guard who made dismissive comments to the women has now been suspended pending further investigation, according to a statement from the Quebec division of Commissionaires, the security company that employs the guards.
McGill University spokesman Michel Proulx called the incident unfortunate and said the institution looks forward to continuing collaboration with the Mohawk Mothers.
“We’re confident the SQI, which is responsible for security on the site, is taking the appropriate steps to address the situation,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “We’ve been working closely with the Mohawk Mothers and the SQI in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration, and we will continue to do so.”
Kimberly Murray, the federally appointed Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves, was one of the intervenors in the case that led to the settlement agreement. She said the heated encounter could have been avoided if SQI and McGill had chosen a vetted security company with cultural competency training and a solid background in the search effort taking place on the site.
“What they have done is completely contrary to what is supposed to be a collaborative approach as per the settlement agreement,” she said.
Kwetiio said that the older Mothers won’t feel comfortable returning to the site unless security personnel changes.
“We are not satisfied returning yet because we have asked questions about people employed there, and about getting them cultural training, and haven’t received answers,” she said. “They need to speak to us in a culturally appropriate manner. We need to have this resolved as quick as possible because we need to find our children.”