Graves on SAQ land?

Work on new distribution center on pause due to possible presence of human remains

The possible presence of anonymous graves of orphans and indigenous children in an old cemetery located on a portion of the current SAQ lands could affect and extend the duration of the $300 million work planned for the expansion of the distribution center. These have been suspended since the beginning of January.

What there is to know

The SAQ has halted work to expand and modernize its distribution center at the request of groups representing the Duplessis Orphans and the Mohawk Mothers.

They suspect the presence of graves of indigenous and non-indigenous children since a portion of the SAQ land is located on an old cemetery.

A meeting should eventually take place between the state corporation and the two groups in order to establish a protocol.

At the request of the Committee of Institutionalized Orphans of Duplessis and Kanien’keha: ka Kahnistensera, a group of indigenous activists commonly known as the “Mohawk Mothers”, the SAQ did not undertake the excavation work it requested. was about to do. Activities on the construction site have been interrupted. This is because the two signatory groups suspect the presence of human remains.


The site, which can be seen covered in snow in this photo, would have already served as an informal cemetery and there is a probability that anonymous burials of children could be found there, namely the Duplessis orphans, as well as the remains of indigenous children.

In a letter dated January 8, they expressed their concerns to the state-owned company, asking it to suspend work while “basic precautions” are put in place. The SAQ’s distribution center and head office are located in the east of the city, near the Louis-Hippolyte-La Fontaine bridge-tunnel. The cost of the center expansion project and its automation – work on which is scheduled to be completed in 2027 – is estimated at around $300 million. This modernization – including a new 192,000 sq. ft. building⁠2 – will allow the SAQ to increase its online offering to reach 20,000 products, increase the speed of execution in the warehouse and offer delivery within 24 hours, which is not currently the case. Delivery times vary between three and five working days.

“As you may already know, the site of the SAQ warehouses on rue des Futailles is a former cemetery that belonged to the Sisters of Providence,” we can read in the missive that The Press was able to consult. “The site notably served as an informal cemetery for unclaimed bodies of patients who died at Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital. In addition to including anonymous burials of children, namely Orphans of Duplessis, there is a strong likelihood that indigenous children were also buried at the site. »

Given the high probability of the presence of anonymous burials of indigenous and non-indigenous children on site, we would like to establish an archaeological and forensic protocol with you to ensure the protection of possible human remains before work takes place. excavation.

Excerpt from the letter from the Committee of Institutionalized Orphans of Duplessis and Mohawk Mothers

Representatives of the Duplessis orphans and the Mohawk Mothers requested a meeting with the leaders of the state corporation. The SAQ also wishes to take the time to discuss the next steps with the two groups, we have been confirmed. At this time, however, no meeting date has been set.

“Official exhumation measures were (…) undertaken on this land at the end of the 1960s, before it was the property of the SAQ,” recalled the state company, in an official declaration sent to The Press by email.

“Upon receipt of (the) letter (from the Duplessis orphans and the Mohawk Mothers), we made the decision not to undertake the excavation work relating to the planned expansion, while we established a plan for action. »

According to the rules of the art

The signatories were only informed of the interruption of work at the end of the day on Friday, a few hours after The Press questioned the SAQ on the matter, according to anthropologist Philippe Blouin, who works closely with the Mohawk Mothers and who acts as a French-speaking interpreter. He considers it important to do things according to the rules of the art.

“It was formerly registered as a cemetery,” underlines Mr. Blouin, also a lecturer and doctoral candidate in anthropology at McGill University. “Unofficially, it was called the pigsty cemetery. It’s a pretty terrible story where unclaimed bodies, particularly of children who were in Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, were buried there. A large part of the bodies were exhumed and transported to the Saint-François-d’Assise Cemetery. But this was not done with all the bodies and so by accident, during the expansion projects (of the SAQ) in 1999, we found bones. »

“As representatives of the Duplessis orphan communities and the Mohawk communities, we do not want such accidental discoveries to happen again,” the letter reads.

At the time, and still today, the SAQ affirms that in 1999, it was more a question of “animal remains”.

In the case of the distribution center, the president of the committee representing the Duplessis orphans, Hervé Bertrand, is convinced of the presence of human bones. If the SAQ does not want to cooperate, he will not hesitate to go to court, he told The Press.

A Royal Victoria, take 2?

The SAQ file is not the only one that interests the indigenous group, whose role in Mohawk law is to ensure the preservation of traditional territory. The Mohawk Mothers went to Superior Court to force a halt to work planned at the Royal Victoria Hospital allowing McGill University to expand its campus. The group fears that the excavation work will destroy possible indigenous burials and clandestine graves. In October, the Superior Court forced McGill University and the Société québécoise des infrastructures (SQI) to reinstate the panel of expert archaeologists to carry out proper excavations. However, a few weeks ago, the SQI and the university appealed the judgment. This will be heard on June 11.


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