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A cool young kanienkehaka [Mohawk] McGill student wrote this. Pictures were added by MNN:
TITLE: “A Landscape of Contested Sovereignties: Fissure Points Arising from the Archaeological
Investigation at the Old Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Quebec
by Dallas Karonhianoron Canady
Dr. Peter Johansen
ANTH 450: Archaeology of Landscapes
10 December 2023 Canady 1
TIME FOR INDIGENOUS TRUTH
“We shall resist by every means any aggression, any violation of the treaties, any disturbance of our people in the free use and enjoyment of our land, any usurpation of our sovereignty, any encroachment and oppression. We pledge that the noise will be heard from one end of the world to the other.” — Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall (2023:167)
“[The] — David M. Schaepe (2009:244)
Ohèn:ton Tsi Karihwatéhkwen, Matters Before All Else
It is the summer of 2022. I’ve just finished my third year of undergraduate studies in anthropology at McGill University, but any sense of accomplishment I could have experienced was done away with following the death of my father on Easter Sunday. I’ve been bombarded with the responsibilities of handling his estate as his only child, just twenty-one years old. I spend most of my days at home, enraptured in a violent cycle of reminiscing on what used to be and catastrophizing about what my life could possibly become. Somehow, I managed to pick up a job working as a research assistant despite all of this. A professor in my department tasked me with reviewing and annotating some thirty-years worth of archaeological publications as it concerned the discipline’s engagement with Indigeneity, Indigenous peoples, and the concept of reconciliation. I finished my work in August, and it was around this time that I was put in touch with the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera– also known as the Mohawk Mothers. They were preparing to file an injunction in Quebec’s Superior Court to stop a construction project that was going to take place on the northwestern sector of McGill’s downtown campus (Mohawk Nation News 2022).
Figure 1. A screenshot of a model of the Société québécoise des infrastructures (2023) buildings of the Old Royal Victoria Hospital complex.
Known as the New Vic Project, this endeavor is framed as a collaborative effort between McGill University, the City of Montreal, and the government of Quebec to refurbish the shell of a hospital in the downtown core that has been partially abandoned since 2015. “Classic patient wards and medical facilities will be reimagined and completely reinvented,” notes the university’s website (McGill 2023), as classrooms, dormitories, research labs, restaurants and green spaces. The former Royal Victoria Hospital is considered a cultural heritage property (un immobilier de patrimoine culturel) belonging to the settler state. Further, the land that the hospital was built upon– in fact the entirety of what is now called Mount Royal– is itself considered a heritage site (Culture et Communications Québec 2023). Pursuant to Quebec’s Loi sur le patrimoine culturel (2011), this means that any and all construction taking place was to be subject to, and only to, provincial oversight.
The Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera raised three potent issues in their application for an injunction: 1) that the land encompassing the Royal Victoria Hospital and Mount Royal fell under Mohawk jurisdiction; 2) as such, in accordance with the Kaianereh’ko:wa (Great Law of Peace) the Kahnisténsera are endowed with the responsibility of protecting the land for the future generations; and 3) also in accordance with the Kaianereh’ko:wa, the Kahnisténsera are entrusted with protecting any and all children of the past, present and future– dead or alive. They came forth with hundreds of articles of evidence detailing horrific crimes that took place at the site of the Royal Victoria Hospital throughout the 20th century, including the now infamous CIA-funded MK-Ultra brainwashing experiments (Burton 2023). Most damning is eyewitness testimony provided by a former patient, Lana Ponting, who alleges that she was institutionalized alongside Indigenous children at the hospital’s psychiatric institute and had reason to believe some of them were buried on the grounds (Annable 2020). In calling for a halt to construction, the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera also demanded that there be an Indigenous-led archaeological investigation to protect any potential unmarked graves on the site.
The role of archaeology in this situation is a complex one. The investigation itself sits on a fragile border between historic and forensic, raising the question of how far in the past must a crime be committed in order to be considered archaeological and not punishable under state law. It is also unique in that it is the first search for unmarked graves of Indigenous children within the province of Quebec, in addition to the fact that this search is taking place at a hospital and not a former residential school site, as is the case elsewhere in Canada (Cooper 2023). But what I will focus on for the remainder of this paper is the way in which the Royal Victoria Hospital– as an archaeological site– has acted as a medium through which contested sovereignties are articulated, imagined and reified. I argue that in mobilizing the concept of, as well as legislation
relating to cultural heritage, the settler-colonial state of Quebec is in fact making a claim to territoriality and political legitimacy. This is consistent with the historic weaponization of archaeology against the Mohawk nation, which has and continues to be used as a means to usurp our authority and belonging to Land.
A History of Archaeology in Quebec
There are very few scholarly publications concerning themselves with the history of archaeology of Quebec, as compared to the plethora of literature available on the history of archaeology within Canada as a whole. This is despite the fact that the oldest archaeological collection in Canada consists of slate arrowheads found by early 18th-century laborers near Trois-Rivières, Quebec in the town of Bécancour (Clermont 2001:1079). What research does exist primarily concerns itself with the recent development of commercial archaeology in the province (Arpin and Bergeron 2006; Zorzin 2010; Zorzin and Gates St-Pierre 2017; Gates St-Pierre 2018). These academics have largely endorsed the view that there was simply no formal discipline in the province prior to the secularization that took place during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s (Gates St-Pierre 2018:3; Clermont 1999:8-9). Prior to this, it is argued that archaeology was an intellectual domain restricted to the interest of Catholic clergymen (Gates St-Pierre 2018:3-4), anglophone elites and foreigners (Martijn 1998:165-168).
A pillar in the history of archaeology in Quebec and Canada generally, is the re/discovery of the historic Indigenous settlement of Hochelaga in downtown Montreal circa 1860. Named the Dawson site after John William Dawson, a trained geologist and then-president of McGill University, archaeology was mobilized in this instance to “search for traces of […] Jacques Cartier’s voyage up the St. Lawrence River in 1535-1536” (Waselkov 2009:617). The existence of Hochelaga, and whether or not Cartier encountered Hochelaga or another site, have been
debated at-length since the 19th century. Adding another degree of complexity to the Dawson site is the fact that Samuel de Champlain allegedly found, upon his return to the island of Montreal in 1603, that the village Cartier identified as Hochelaga “had disappeared entirely, leaving no trace of [its] existence” (Hale 1894:2). Dozens of archaeologists, over more than a century, have devoted exorbitant amounts of time and energy in an attempt to identify the ethnic identity of Hochelaga’s inhabitants. Unable to agree on any singular interpretation, this resulted in the creation of the mythic “St. Lawrence Iroquoians” (Trigger 1968). This ethno-historical label describes a group of Indigenous peoples who share traits with contemporary Indigenous nations, but indeterminately so. As described by James F. Pendergast (1975:50):
“[…] There was a large group of Iroquoians in the St. Lawrence River Valley above Hochelaga, present-day Montreal, who were not Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Huron, or any of the other historic Iroquoian tribes to which they have been attributed. It is postulated that this distinct group of Iroquoians, the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, are the result of an in-situ development in the upper St. Lawrence River Valley during the period A.D. 1250-1575 [emphasis added].”
This narrative profoundly usurps any kind of modern-day claims to political authority and belonging to land made by Indigenous peoples, particularly as it concerns the Mohawks who have insisted that much of the St. Lawrence Valley was known and inhabited by our ancestors (Hall 2023; Gabriel-Doxtater and Van den Hende 1995; Delaronde and Engel 2015). By establishing the St. Lawrence Iroquoians as an entity separate and distinct from contemporary First Nations, and therefore non-existent in the present, archaeologists have created an imagined landscape. This landscape can be understood as res derelictae– that is, abandoned by its original inhabitants. Unoccupied territories fall under the domain of the Doctrine of Discovery: “the legal means by which Europeans claimed rights of sovereignty, property, and trade in regions they allegedly discovered” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 2015:192). This blatant, yet unchallenged denialism has formed the roots of archaeological theory and practice in the
province of Quebec, and beyond. In the next section, I will outline the ways in which archaeology has affirmed the authority of the settler-colonial state following its absorption into the Quebec government post-Quiet Revolution.
Archaeology, Colonialism, and the Codification of Heritage
Due to time and page constraints, I’m unable to discuss the particularities of the Quiet Revolution. However, there are two primary outcomes of the Revolution that are relevant to my endeavor here. The first of which concerns secularization and the centralization of public services under the provincial government, and secondly, the rise of Quebecois ethnonationalism. Both of these factors were influenced, in part, by growing anxieties about Quebec’s ability to determine its own place within Canada and an increasingly globalized world. It is within this socio-political milieu that archaeology came to be seen as an exploitable resource, one that politicians in particular needed to draw upon were they to advance their claims of a culturally distinct and/or sovereign Quebec (Zorzin and Gates St-Pierre 2017:415-16). Additionally, the government’s investment into archaeology as an institution manifested as a form of ‘speaking back’ to the minority of anglophone elite that dominated in the realms of politics and the economy since Quebec came under the jurisdiction of the British Crown in 1763. In many ways, the Quiet Revolution signaled the commitment of a majority of Quebecois to securing the right to self-determination.
1961 saw the establishment of a provincial archaeological regime in the creation of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and its Service d’archéologie et d’ethnologie (Martijn 1998:150). L’Université de Montréal and McGill University founded their departments of anthropology soon thereafter, in 1961 and 1968, respectively (Gates St-Pierre 2018:3). The first piece of legislation to be passed concerning archaeology and cultural heritage in Quebec was the Loi sur les Biens
culturels (“Cultural Property Act”) in 1972. This, alongside the concurrent Loi sur la qualité de l’environnement (“Environmental Protection Act”) mandated developers in the private and public sectors to investigate the archaeological potential of sites prior to construction or demolition, and report their findings back to the Minister of Cultural Affairs (Zorzin and Gates St-Pierre 2017:414). This included the newly incorporated infrastructure conglomerate, HydroQuébec. In fact, commercial archaeology largely developed in response to the overwhelming number of hydroelectricity projects taking place in Northern Quebec throughout the 1960s and 70s– projects that the provincial Service d’archéologie et d’ethnologie was ill-equipped to finance (Martijn 1998:171). Ultimately, archaeologists working in the province throughout the late 20th century were tasked with identifying and protecting aspects of cultural heritage while navigating the intense infrastructural demands associated with nation-building and modernization.
How exactly is cultural heritage defined under the provincial legislation? Under the Loi sur les Biens culturels, there was no definition of cultural heritage per se. Rather, a bien culturel (literally, “cultural good”) was defined as “a work of art, a historic property, a historic monument or site, an archaeological property or site, or a cinematographic, audiovisual, photographic, radio or television work” (1985 :3). In contrast, the act that succeeded the original 1972 legislation, the Loi sur le patrimoine culturel (2011) elaborated on several heritage-related terms. An objet patrimonial is classified as “a movable property […] that has archaeological, artistic, emblematic, ethnological, historical, scientific, social or technological value, in particular a work of art, an instrument, furniture or an artifact” (2011:5). Further, paysages culturels patrimonials (“cultural heritage landscapes”) are defined as lands “recognized by a community for [their] remarkable landscape features […] and are worth conserving and, if applicable, enhancing because of their historical or emblematic interest, or their value as a source of identity” (2011:5).
It is never explicitly stated whose heritage or culture is being referred to in the act. Legally speaking, objects and sites of cultural heritage themselves are stated to “belong to the owner (whether private or public) of the land where they are found” (Gates St-Pierre 2018:5). This is a reflection of the Quebec government’s disengagement with the management and implementation of archaeological practice since the 1990s, wherein it has relegated more and more power to municipalities and private corporations. This does not, however, reflect a diffusal of Quebecois ethnonationalism or a disinterest in cultural heritage. Rather, I would argue that Quebec’s release of much of the control it originally allotted itself in the Loi sur les Biens culturels signifies two things– one being a certain comfortability/air of stability with narratives surrounding Quebec’s history and Quebecois identity, and the other being the implication of private entities in the protection/enforcement of the province’s authority and claims to territoriality. In other words, neither colonialism nor archaeology have disengaged from their reliance on each other– their relationship has merely transformed to fit the demands of capitalist settler-colonial realities.
Kahentinétha et al. vs. Société Québécoise des Infrastructures et al. (2023)
My historical overture of archaeology and heritage law in Quebec serves as a framework that one can use to understand in greater depth the situation that has arisen at the site of the Old Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, which I described briefly in the introductory section of this essay. Here, I aim to dig into the specificities that make this archaeological site a landscape of contested sovereignties. Given that the parties involved remain in court and fieldwork is on-going, my analysis should be taken with a grain of salt, insofar that the situation could develop significantly from now (December 2023) onwards. The case brought forth by the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera is precedent-setting in the context of Quebec, and even more so
for First Nations across Canada who are engaged in on-going searches for missing and murdered Indigenous women, children and two-spirit folks. As the New Vic Project is taking place within a site registered as a heritage property (the Old Royal Victoria Hospital), which itself sits within the context of a greater heritage landscape (Mount Royal), it is subject to the oversight of the government of Quebec. This includes the Ministry of Culture and Communications, which is responsible for approving archaeology and construction permits, as well as the Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI), an intergovernmental entity that acts as a property manager for the province. Under the Loi sur le patrimoine culturel, public and private institutions alike have no requirement to notify or consult Indigenous peoples about infrastructure work, archaeological investigations, or changes to heritage legislation/status. Rather, the Minister of Culture and Communications is merely entrusted with the power to “enter into agreements […] with a Native community represented by its band council” should such an agreement lead to the development of “knowledge of cultural heritage and protect, transmit or enhance that heritage” (2011:26). This framework is problematic for several reasons: 1) it establishes the acknowledgement of Indigenous presence and authority as optional; 2) the only Indigenous political body that could possibly be acknowledged or collaborated with is the federally-imposed band council system, and; 3) such agreements should only be drawn up if they are perceived as being beneficial to the settler state.
McGill University (2023), as a party leasing land from the SQI for its portion of the New Vic Project, alleges that it “engaged Indigenous communities” as early as 2019, in an effort towards “making the New Vic welcoming and culturally safe for the entire Montreal community.” This included, among other things, notices sent to the three Mohawk band councils surrounding the island of Montreal– but no notice was sent to the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera,
whom I will reiterate are the traditional title holders under the Kaianereh’kó:wa (Hall 2023; Hill 2017). In my personal experience working with the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera, I’ve come to conclude that Indigenous involvement in the New Vic Project was either an afterthought, or a thought given very little critical attention. For example, McGill University, the SQI and its contracted archaeological firm Arkéos, proceeded with archaeological fieldwork during the two days that the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera’s motion for an injunction was being heard in Quebec’s Superior Court in October 2022 (CBC News 2022).
Only after the judge mandated collaboration did McGill and SQI enter into negotiations to do so. This resulted in the creation of a settlement agreement between the parties in April 2023. A legally enforceable contract, the agreement outlines the nature of the parties’ collaboration as well as the parameters that the archaeological investigation must follow. Crucially, this included the following: 1) the investigation must be Indigenous-led; 2) must conform to Indigenous laws and protocols; 3) must be in accordance with archaeological best practices, as outlined by the Canadian Archaeological Association; and, 4) must be undertaken in the spirit of reconciliation (Falconers LLP 2023a). Additional safeguard measures were put in place by the settlement agreement to ensure these articles were followed, including the establishment of a third-party expert panel of archaeologists and a body of Indigenous cultural monitors to survey fieldwork as it progressed.
A degree of collaboration took place in the summer of 2023, especially after the allegations of unmarked graves were verified by historic human remains detection dogs in June (Fournier 2023a) and ground-penetrating radar in July (Grewal 2023). However, any trust that existed between the parties was shattered after the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera and Indigenous cultural monitors were assaulted on-site by an SQI-hired security guard in July (Fournier 2023b).
Tensions were further exacerbated that same month when McGill University and the SQI signaled their intent to dismiss the expert panel and most, if not all, of their recommendations for best practices (Falconers LLP 2023b). Additionally, throughout my time working as a cultural monitor at the New Vic site, I either experienced firsthand or witnessed service providers’ (archaeologists, GPR technicians, among others) open hostility to any questions or concerns raised about their methods and/or analyses. Then in October 2023, the SQI stated that they were no longer going to allow the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera to be present on the site, regardless of whether or not archaeological digs were taking place. With the safeguards they had fought so hard for made void by McGill University and the Société québécoise des infrastructures, they turned once more to the court for help. On November 20th, 2023, a judge once again ruled in their favor, finding McGill and SQI in breach of the settlement agreement (Falconers LLP 2023b). But no degree of punishment or enforcement of the law has been seen since, even as archaeological work has increasingly given way to full-on construction and demolition efforts.
What the case put forth by the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera does in this instance is disrupt the normative assumptions that Quebecois political authority and territoriality are inherent, unquestionable and absolute; and further, that a landscape or aspects of a landscape are ‘things’ that can be owned. In demanding to not only be consulted but to lead the archaeological investigation, the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera are asserting Mohawk sovereignty and their unrelinquished title to land. The inability of colonial institutions such as universities and governments to recognize Indigenous political authority outside of the band council system, and therefore, the inability to recognize Indigenous authority as existing beyond the confines of the reserve system, reflects an inability to accept Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination
and sovereignty. These profound disconnections, notes David Schaepe (2009:244), “remain as points of contention and conflict” so long as the same relational dynamic exists between colonial and Indigenous bodies, and/or as long as one continues to assert an existence that negates the life of the other. At the site of the Royal Victoria Hospital, divergent understandings of landscapes and sovereignty has resulted in an almost complete divergence from the Kanien’kehá:ka Kahnisténsera’s mandate: to find and protect the unmarked graves of children.
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