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Mohawk Mothers, Duplessis orphans take legal action over planned SAQ warehouse

Two representatives of the Duplessis orphans protest outside an SAQ warehouse in the east end of Montreal, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. That group and the Mohawk Mothers want the company to stop work on the building of a new warehouse until cadaver dogs can confirm whether human remains are on the construction site of a new warehouse. Phil Carpenter/Global News

The Mohawk Mothers and representatives of the Duplessis orphans are taking legal action after Quebec’s liquor board, the SAQ, decided to go ahead with construction of a new warehouse in Montreal’s east end.

The groups believe there could be human remains on the site.

“They knew that this used to be the site of what was called the ‘pigsty’ cemetery, where unclaimed bodies of patients of the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu psychiatry hospital were interred,” says Philippe Blouin, an anthropologist who has been helping the groups.

The Mohawk Mothers say they were in talks with the liquor board since January about the possibility of human bodies on the site, but then this week the SAQ announced that it would resume construction.

“That was very shocking to me for them to do that, in violation of what we had all agreed to do,” states Kahentinetha, representing that group.

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The land was an informal cemetery for orphans who were under the care of the former Catholic-run Saint-Jean-de-Dieu hospital from the 1940s. According to the groups, many of the children, like the Duplessis orphans and Indigenous kids, were wrongly diagnosed with mental illness and were buried on the land after death.

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Both groups point out that human remains were found on one part of the property more than five decades ago.

“In 1975 when the SAQ built its first warehouse, additional bodies were found by accident,” Blouin says.

The SAQ confirms that there were bodies exhumed on the property in 1975, on the spot where its current warehouse stands.

Those objecting to the new warehouse say that’s why they want to be careful. So they consulted the Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA), which they say recommended using cadaver dogs to check the site. The SAQ chose to not follow that recommendation, pointing out that the CAA is “not a professional order.”

According to the company, there were no burials where it plans to build the new warehouse. Nevertheless, it hired experts to search the new site.

“(They) did an archaeological inventory, so there were trenches that were made and searched to make sure that there were no human remains,” says Lili Prud’homme, the SAQ’s real estate development director.

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She says bone fragments that were found were from animals and that they planned to resume work on the warehouse this week.

But the other groups sent a cease and desist letter to the liquor board to stop any construction until cadaver dogs search the site. SAQ officials say they are considering next steps.

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