A Mohawk Mothers' Major Court Victory Against The Royal Vic Expansion Is 'Precedent-Setting'

They want to keep "exposing the truth."

Staff Writer
Three of the Kanien'kehá:ka kahnistensera sit with anthropologist Philippe Blouin in a Zoom call with MTL Blog.

Three of the Kanien'kehá:ka kahnistensera sit with anthropologist Philippe Blouin in a Zoom call with MTL Blog.

"What we want is for all of the truth to come out," a confident woman named Kahenitetha tells MTL Blog. "And eventually this will happen."

Kahenitetha is a member of a group of Mohawk mothers, Kanien'kehá:ka kahnistensera, who have been fighting a legal battle — and won a landmark case — with McGill University and the Socétée québécoise des infrastructures (SQI) to archaeologically examine an area of land currently under development by the university. The mothers believe the site contains the unmarked remains of Indigenous children.

A sense of responsibility leads the way

The kahnistensera ("mothers" in the Mohawk language Kanien'kehá) feel a duty and a sense of responsibility towards the children whose remains may be buried at the site.

The Kanien'kehá:ka kahnistensera, alongside anthropologist Philippe Blouin, spoke to MTL Blog the week after the momentous homologation — a word that was previously just as unfamiliar to them as it was to me.

It means "legal approval," more or less, and in this case, it refers to the Quebec Superior Court's acceptance of the kahnistensera's negotiated settlement, which agreed in part that archaeological digs begin ahead of any further development at the site of the Old Royal Victoria Hospital.

"We're not looking for recognition," another mother, Kwetiio, said, "We're just looking to be able to put our children to rest in our own manner."

Setting the bar with self-representation

The kahnistensera represented themselves, in accordance with the Kaianerekowa (or Great Law of Peace). This crucial choice, and the legal victory that followed, "set a precedent that Indigenous law works," Kwetiio told MTL Blog.

"We just used our own brains and our minds," she continued, so it "not only set a precedent of procedures, but also that we just leaned on each other as onkwehonwe [Indigenous] people and stuck to our traditional way," she added.

"And that's what brought us forward. That's what made success. That's what helped [the] agreement happen. That's precedent-setting, and it shows that Indigenous law works."

This self-representation is an "inherent right" of the kahnistensera, as Kahenitetha put it, and of any other Mohawk person: you can represent your own truth, "rely totally on the truth," she added.

"It needs to be seen that onkwehonwe people will be the gauge of what 'reconciliation' is, not the government," Kwetiio said.

Disrespect at the site continues

But even if the homologation was both a major victory and an affirmation of Indigenous law, it hasn't deterred the continued disrespect of the site — and therefore the children who still "call" to the kahnistensera, who still, in Kahenitetha's words, "want us to find them."

Security is lacking, the kahnistensera told MTL Blog, to the extent that self-proclaimed ghost hunters have entered and filmed exploitative videos at the location.

"That is just not appropriate," Blouin said, adding that this voyeuristic behaviour is part of a "constant growth in colonial history" in which Indigenous burial sites aren't granted the same sanctity as colonial graveyards.

It was a "hard struggle" just getting as far as an archaeological inquiry, Kahenitetha told MTL Blog. It shows that the mothers "have the final say," at least in theory, "and now we can get started on the work." But that work can only take place if the site is respected.

"There was a constant retraumatization"

The hardest part of the entire process of fighting for these children was the constant, gruelling conversations "and the process of going through all of the details," Kwetiio said, "that we actually have to fight for it, when that should be a given."

"There were difficult times in the courtroom where they didn't even want to mention these children. They didn't say 'the unmarked graves of these children,' and we had to remind them that that's what we're here for," Kwetiio told me over Zoom.

"There was a constant retraumatization of us during every meeting, during everything that was put against us," she said, pausing before adding a phrase that she heard during the kahnistensera's ongoing, painful, but deeply necessary fight.

"Those children in the ground are just the seeds that made us grow stronger.

"These children that were deprived of all of this lifetime," Kwetiio said, "that were deprived of love and a family and such, I feel like everything that happened to them is having a reciprocal effect now.

"Now they're being the most thought of everywhere. They're being considered the most right now. And I think we have to bring that forward."

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society Emergency Crisis Line is available across Canada 24/7. Those who may need support can call 1-866-925-4419.

Willa Holt
Staff Writer
Willa Holt is a Creator for MTL Blog, often found covering weird and wonderful real estate and local politics from her home base in Montreal.