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Mapping unmarked graves: why the Mohawk Mothers are fighting McGill University
A Québec superior court recently ruled that excavation can continue on certain parts of the site of Montréal’s former Royal Victoria Hospital. The ruling comes after a group of Indigenous women known as the Mohawk Mothers called for an emergency court hearing to halt excavations at the site.
The Mothers called for the hearing after McGill University and the Société Québécoise des Infrastructures (SQI) disbanded the court-appointed panel of Indigenous archaeologists that was set up under a settlement agreement and started construction on certain parts of the former Royal Victoria Hospital site.
In October 2022, the Mohawk Mothers obtained a temporary injunction against McGill to stop any excavations. The former Royal Victoria Hospital, vacant since 2015, was slated for an $850-million redevelopment project to expand McGill’s campus led by the SQI. It neighbours the Allan Memorial Institute, a former psychiatric hospital where American and Canadian-funded psychiatric experiments involving Indigenous children took place from 1957 to 1964.
In April, Québec’s Superior Court approved a settlement allowing the Mohawk Mothers to investigate unmarked graves at the site. The agreement states that excavation work can begin on a rolling basis if no graves are immediately found, but that it be done in a sensitive manner in case there is an unexpected discovery.
In June, specialized detection dogs discovered evidence of human remains at the site, further substantiating the Mothers’ claim.
The task of investigating children’s deaths and forced disappearances is emotionally taxing and physically draining. One might expect that McGill and the SQI would do everything in their capacity to support the Mothers’ efforts.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case. One week after the excavation began, the Mohawk Mothers and cultural monitors mandated to be on-site under the agreement were removed by SQI security.
I am a cartographer specializing in mapping governmental and ecclesiastical archives. Because of this work and my relationships with Mohawk communities around Montréal, I was invited to attend the Mohawk Mothers’ court hearings.
At the Sept. 14 hearing, the debate about whether the settlement agreement has been breached revolved around the definition of “mapping.” According to section 11 of the settlement agreement:
The mandate of the Panel is to assess and identify the appropriate archaeological techniques to be used on different areas of the site to detect whether there are unmarked graves (also known as “Mapping”).
McGill’s lawyer argued that mapping means making a map with points or zones where different archaeological techniques should be applied to find human remains. When all the zones were drawn, the panel could be disbanded because the mapping was over. Construction on certain parts of the site could resume and the Mohawk Mothers would be made aware if anything was found.
This interpretation distorts and extensively simplifies the process of mapping the unmarked graves of children. It reduces mapping to a mere checklist item, detached from the ever-changing reality on the ground.
It allows McGill to claim that the mapping work undertaken by the panel is over, and that McGill no longer needs to consult or share results with them during the excavation phase. Moreover, disbanding the panel gives McGill and the SQI exclusive authority in interpreting the excavation results.
In contrast, the Mohawk Mothers’ see the mapping as an ongoing process. This means that the areas where they are actively searching for remains can be continually updated on the map as the project progresses and new information becomes available.
The panel’s responsibilities don’t end after creating an initial map. While this initial mapping serves as a starting point, the panel should remain involved as the map evolves. Starting construction on the site isn’t reasonable given that it may need to halt at any point due to new evidence discovered in archives, survivor testimonies or in the ground.
The paradoxical nature of cartography lies in its dual potential to work both for and against Indigenous communities. The debate about how mapping is defined highlights a conflict between colonial and decolonial perspectives. McGill and the SQI have presented themselves as willing collaborators, ostensibly working toward reconciliation. Yet, they view the mapping as a mere item on their to-do list.
The Mohawk Mothers have expressed their frustration at being entirely excluded from the process. They cite instances where McGill and SQI have ignored the panel’s suggestions, overlooked crucial evidence and refused to share findings with the Canadian Archaeological Association Working Group on Unmarked Graves.
The Sept. 14 hearing took place four days before McGill’s annual “Indigenous Awareness Weeks.” The irony was not lost on anyone.
Colonial vs. decolonial perspectives
This case echoes other well-known debates concerning the definition of mapping and its implications for Indigenous land rights. Observing the courtroom proceedings, I was struck by the enduring presence of colonial assumptions about cartography. Indigenous communities continue having to advocate for and defend their cartographic methods in order to uphold their connections and duties to the land.
In the 1970s, maps played a pivotal role in land claims negotiations between the Inuit and the federal government, ultimately leading to the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims agreement. The Inuit demonstrated in court that mapping, as a process, was more effective in conveying their lived realities.
Through the Inuit Land Use and Occupancy project, they meticulously developed “map biographies” to document hunting, fishing, trapping and other activities, showcasing each of the 34 Inuit communities’ longstanding ties to their land.
The Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en First Nations faced racism and denialism in the Supreme court of British Colombia when they presented their map in the form of a song and were told by the chief justice of the court that “to have witnesses singing songs in court is, in my respectful opinion, not the proper way to approach the problem.”
Just because the panel of archaeologists has made a map, it doesn’t mean they are done mapping. A truly decolonial mapping project centres and respects Indigenous geographical knowledge and protocols, and includes involvement of Indigenous communities in the process.
Protocols and agreements with Indigenous groups should not be seen as cumbersome paperwork. They are an opportunity for McGill, the SQI and others to work collaboratively in a culturally sensitive manner for the management of potential burial sites.
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