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Montreal city workers uncover tombs in Place du Canada

MONTREAL – The two leg bones, lying parallel in a shallow grave, might have come as a shock to electrical workers preparing to install new wiring and lampposts in Place du Canada.

But for the archeologists called upon to evict some of the residents of the former St. Antoine Cemetery, the macabre find was par for the course.

On Friday, as traffic along René Lévesque Blvd. whizzed by unaware, Arkéos workers uncovered four tombs buried in the dark, wet earth just below the asphalt.

“One of them had bones in it,” said bio-archeologist Gérard Gagné, nonchalantly. “But we don’t know what’s in the others.”

Some tombs, of course, are empty, he said.

Along with Dorchester Square, on the other side of René Lévesque Blvd., this land, now in the heart of downtown Montreal, was countryside in the 18th century, with nothing but forest and potato fields all around, when it was turned into a cemetery in 1799.

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Many of the dead, which at one point numbered between 40,000 and 50,000, were brought over from the first Notre Dame Church in Old Montreal, which closed in 1796, while others were buried here in mass graves, following some of the various epidemics that swept through the city.

Among the remains were 900 people who died of cholera in the summer of 1832, for example.

In the 1860s, most of the bodies at the St. Antoine Cemetery were moved to Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery on Mount Royal, when the city wanted to rezone and sell the lots.

But the exhumations were halted abruptly in 1871 over public fears – unfounded – that raising the dead would mean raising and rekindling some of the deadly epidemics.

Now, as the City of Montreal “breathes new life” into these last green oases downtown, some of the nameless souls who escaped the last move are being unearthed.

During the restoration of Dorchester Square, from 2009 to 2011, at least 15 bodies were exhumed and taken away for analysis.

Any skeletal remains found in Place du Canada will also be analyzed, Gagné said, to determine their age, stature, sex and possibly the cause of death.

(Among others things, archeologists may note the presence of deep cavities in the teeth, which would have led to severe infections, or nutritional deficiencies leading to osteoporosis or other degenerative diseases.)

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Once all the restoration work in Place du Canada is complete, the remains will be reburied in Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery, with a commemorative marker.

When that will be, however, remains to be seen. The contract for the restoration of Place du Canada, worth $12.9 million, was one of four city contracts cancelled Wednesday. The city’s contracts committee ruled the bid by Terramex aménagement urbain didn’t conform to one element of the contract specifications.

The city must now put out a new call for tenders.