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SAQ warehouse expansion paused due to possible asylum gravesite

Expansion work was paused at Montreal's SAQ warehouse after two groups demanded an excavation on site. It was once an informal cemetery for a nearby asylum. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
Expansion work was paused at Montreal's SAQ warehouse after two groups demanded an excavation on site. It was once an informal cemetery for a nearby asylum. (Rowan Kennedy/CBC - image credit)

The Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) has paused excavation work to expand its Montreal distribution centre after two groups said they believe there are children's graves where a cemetery used to be on the site.

The Kanien'kehá:ka Kahnistensera, a group of Indigenous women known as the Mohawk Mothers, and the Committee of Duplessis Orphans Victims of Abuse are calling for an archeological dig of the area.

The SAQ, the provincial agency in charge of alcohol sales, confirmed that part of its land was once a cemetery for a nearby asylum called Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, which was run by the Sisters of Providence, who have been accused of abuse.

Kwetiio, a member of the Kanien'kehá:ka Kahnistensera, believes remains of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are still there, based on court testimonies from a member of the congregation in the 1980s.

"If there's something under the ground here, and there is something under the ground here, it needs to be respected, it needs to be put to rest in the proper way," she said.

Kwetiio, a member of the Kanien'kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers), believes remains of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are still on-site and must 'be put to rest in the proper way.'
Kwetiio, a member of the Kanien'kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers), believes remains of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are still on-site and must 'be put to rest in the proper way.'

Kwetiio, a member of the Kanien'kehá:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers), believes remains of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are still on-site and must 'be put to rest in the proper way.' (Rowan Kennedy/CBC)

The Quebec government institutionalized children declared mentally ill in the 1940s and 50s, and many Indigenous children stayed in Quebec hospitals without being sent back to their families.

Philippe Blouin, an anthropologist acting as interpreter for the group, said an old "informal" cemetery, possibly containing more than 2,000 bodies, is located on the site where the SAQ is working.

"We want experts on site, as well as native surveillance. We're not asking for the moon," said Blouin.

The graveyard was closed in 1958, according to an article in the Journal de Montréal. At the time, journalists looked into the likelihood that several victims of abuse had been buried without investigation.

As a result, the cemetery was exhumed in the late 1960s. More bodies were discovered on site by accident in 1999, according to newspaper archives. At the time, the SAQ argued that the bone was too large to be human and belonged to an animal.

'Do things right'

The groups' request was made to the SAQ, the attorney general of Quebec and the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications by registered mail on Jan. 8. The SAQ responded saying that "some preparatory work is underway, but no excavation work is being carried out as part of the planned expansion."

The SAQ said the letter from the group prompted it to take "the decision not to undertake the excavation work related to the planned expansion, while an action plan is established."

Clémence Beaulieu-Gendron, a SAQ spokesperson, said the company's intention "is to do things right."

The Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital was one of the institutions where orphans and aboriginal children were housed.
The Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital was one of the institutions where orphans and aboriginal children were housed.

The Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital was one of the institutions where orphans and Indigenous children were housed. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

Kwetiio says her group will keep a close eye to make sure the SAQ stays true to its word.

"It's there for the taking to do the right thing, but we are going to watch closely and make sure that the measures that are taken are proper, they're done in the right way," she said.

The SAQ announced in January 2021 that it wanted to expand its Montreal distribution centre by investing $48.5 million. The warehouse is located in the east end of the island on des Futailles Street.