Update on the New Vic Project and clarification of salient facts

Dear members of the McGill community,

On Friday, December 8, McGill filed for leave to appeal the Superior Court decision issued November 20. That ruling addressed the circumstances under which archeological work on the site of the former Royal Victoria Hospital (“RVH”) is to be carried out.  Our decision to appeal was not taken lightly and is based on our view that the judgment made legal and palpable errors.

To be clear, to date and after more than five (5) months of thorough archeological investigation, no evidence pointing to unmarked human graves has been found, and experts have deemed future such discoveries “possible though unlikely,” “unlikely”, or “impossible” in the zones identified for examination on the RVH site.

Our priority remains focused on making sure all the necessary steps are taken to ensure there are no unmarked graves on the site of the New Vic Project (NVP).

We continue to take seriously even the possibility of such a finding. Should human remains be discovered, all work will cease immediately, and the areas will be treated with the utmost sensitivity and respect in consultation with Indigenous leadership and with relevant authorities. In addition, in accordance with the Settlement Agreement reached last April (“Agreement”), in the event of such discoveries, the parties will seek the advice of an independent panel of experts (“Panel”) as to how to move forward.

Clarification of salient facts

For the past nearly two years, the NVP has been frequently mischaracterized in the media and in various information campaigns. Much of what has been written and said about the NVP is incomplete or misleading. The moment is opportune to clarify critical details.

In March 2022, the Kanien’keha:ka Kahnistensera (Mohawk Mothers) filed a lawsuit against McGill, the Société québecoise des infrastructures (SQI, the government body that owns the former site of the RVH), as well as other defendants. This suit sought, among other things, an injunction against any demolition, construction, or transformation of the buildings on the former site of the RVH, and any excavation of the site. The suit alleged that the hospital grounds may be the site of the unmarked graves of Indigenous people, including subjects of MK-Ultra experiments conducted in the 1950s and 1960s at the neighbouring Allan Memorial Institute.

In October 2022, the Quebec Superior Court granted a temporary injunction on all excavation at the former RVH site and invited the parties to develop an archeological plan for the entire site. The parties reached an Agreement in April 2023, which set the terms by which the archeological investigation of the site would be undertaken.

Under the terms of the Agreement, the parties agreed to appoint an expert panel of three archeologists. The Panel’s mandate was to assess and identify the appropriate archeological techniques to be used on different areas of the site to detect whether there are any unmarked graves. The Panel was also invited to make recommendations as to the specialists to carry out the techniques. The Agreement further allowed for the presence of Indigenous cultural monitors to be present during the execution of the archeological techniques. The Panel submitted its final report on July 17, 2023, and, in accordance with the express terms of the Agreement, McGill took the view that further advice would be sought from the Panel if an unexpected discovery were made at a later date.

Pursuant to the Agreement, excavation in a given area at the RVH site can only occur when the recommended archeological techniques are duly carried out in that area, and that they did not lead to the identification of unmarked graves. Such excavation is required to be undertaken, per the Agreement, "in a sensitive manner with appropriate monitoring." We have consistently and diligently met these requirements. It is critical to note that the Agreement does not require the consent of any party before excavation work is carried out, provided these terms are met.

The NVP is being built on the southeast corner of the former Royal Victoria hospital site, about 15% of the overall site. In its final report, the Panel identified five (5) zones for the NVP specifically, two of which required no archeological techniques and three of which solely required archeological monitoring during excavation, given the unlikely or impossible presence of unmarked graves.  Near the end of August 2023, the Mohawk Mothers filed an application seeking the Court’s renewed intervention, alleging that McGill and others had breached the spirit of the Agreement. The Mohawk Mothers requested that work cease in certain areas of the site. An emergency hearing was held on September 14 to address this application. The Court denied the Mohawk Mothers’ request on September 18.

On October 27, the Court again heard from all parties concerning the alleged breach of the Agreement, with the judge rendering his decision on this matter on November 20. The terms of the November 20 decision are intended to remain in effect until March 2024, however, these could be extended. The ruling did not place any new restriction on continued excavation, renovation, or construction on the RVH site. As such, the judgment does not require any work on the site to stop. At the same time, the judgment extended the Panel’s involvement and oversight role. Following this decision, McGill and the SQI have been in touch with the Mohawk Mothers and the Panel members. Finally, the judgment is clear that the terms of the Agreement are to remain in effect.

Against this intricate background, it is easy to see how there are many complex and technical, but critical, details associated with the NVP. Failure to grasp these has engendered some misunderstandings and misguided claims. It behooves McGill to ensure insofar as possible a clearer understanding of the NVP, and to this end, I am setting out below some common misapprehensions as well as the details needed to set the record straight in their regard.

1. That McGill and the Société québécoise des infrastructures ‘fired’ the panel of archeological experts appointed to advise on site excavation.

The mandate of the Panel was “to assess and identify the appropriate archaeological techniques to be used on different areas of the site to detect whether there are unmarked graves (also known as “Mapping”).” The Panel’s identification of the archeological techniques to be used was binding on the parties. The Panel was also invited to make recommendations as to specialists to carry out the archeological techniques. McGill has understood and engaged with the Panel in a manner that fully abides by these requirements, as set by the Agreement.

This mandate concluded July 17, 2023, with the submission of the Panel’s final report, which included a detailed list of appropriate archeological techniques to be carried out in different sections of the site. The Agreement further stipulated that parties to the Agreement will seek further advice from the Panel in the event there is some unexpected discovery during excavation work.

2. That McGill and the SQI are pressing forward to seek permits for excavation work at the site.

It is standard practice to require that permits be sought in advance of excavation work. No excavation work is carried out in any section of the former RVH site without confirmation that the section does not contain unmarked graves. This is consistent with the terms of the Agreement.

The service providers who are conducting the archaeological work have also requested permits, as required by the Loi sur le patrimoine culturel du Québec, for all the archeological investigations that are required based on the Panel’s recommendations. Such permits require consultation with elected Indigenous leadership and approval from the ministère de la Culture et des Communications.

3. That Historic Human Remains Detection Dogs (HHRDD) detected human remains

On June 9, 2023, dog teams reported one alert on the site. Following this, the Panel recommended mechanically stripping the topsoil and manually cleaning an area covering a full ten-metre radius around the point identified by the dogs. This work was completed, and no human remains were found. The archeologist declared the zone ready for construction under the supervision of an archeologist, which is consistent with the terms of the Agreement.

A second alert by the HHRDD was reported on November 5, 2023, in a different zone; an investigation of the site will take place in Spring 2024 in accordance with the recommendations of the Panel, when weather conditions allow.

Experts agree that caution is required with respect to HHRDD surveys. As the Panel itself noted, there is a risk of false positives in HHRDD surveys, and one study recorded the false positive rate as 20% to 70%.

4. That McGill is destroying evidence when it excavates and moves piles of soil from one area to another, and when it uses heavy machinery that is not designed for this type of work, to sift the soil.

The archeological firm conducting the investigation on the site has more than forty years’ experience with this type of work. That firm determined that these archeological digs do not require manually sifting through the soil. Just the same, out of an abundance of caution, McGill and the SQI elected to have the soil, which had been excavated in the zone where the HHRDDs gave an alert last June, sifted using a specialized sifter intended to sift the sort of soil present at the site. There is no evidence of which we are aware to suggest that this approach compromises the integrity of the search for evidence of human remains. In one area of the site, many bone fragments were found during sifting. These bone fragments are stored in the secure facility of the specialists carrying out the archeological techniques at the site. These specialists assessed the bone fragments to be from animals with no relation to or indication of clandestine human burial. In fact, the discovery of animal bone fragments is quite common during archeological excavations. The archeologists carrying out the techniques believe that animal bone fragments at the site would be consistent with historic activities there. Notably, the archeologists posit that the bones are the result of kitchen refuse at the site at a time when garbage collection did not occur. Here it is important to note that the Hersey Pavilion was the site of a nursing school where students resided. All sifting is now completed, and no element of archeological significance was discovered.

5. That the Agreement stipulates that the archeological investigation must be Indigenous-led

The Agreement does not require that the archeological investigation be Indigenous-led. However, Indigenous presence has been part of the archeological investigation on the site throughout, notably, cultural monitors have access to the site to conduct appropriate ceremonies.

The Agreement states that the archeological techniques would be carried out by qualified professionals appointed by McGill University and the SQI. Two of the three specialists who have carried out the archeological techniques were recommended by the Panel and the third has the qualifications recommended by the Panel. 

6. That McGill has redirected fees paid by students to fund legal proceedings

University operations are supported by revenues from a number of sources, including student tuition and grants from the Quebec Government. McGill did not initiate the matter that has been brought before the courts. Rather, McGill is defending itself. Participating responsibly in the resulting legal proceedings, including seeking leave to appeal, is in the best interests of the university, including McGill students.

Looking ahead

The NVP is the most significant infrastructure project our University has undertaken since its inception more than 200 years ago.  Once completed, the NVP will add 22,800m2 (net) of much-needed, state-of-the-art teaching and research spaces to our downtown campus. This will be achieved by redeveloping heritage buildings that were once part of the original Royal Victoria Hospital at the foot of Mont Royal and by adding wholly new extensions to the site, allowing us to take a significant step toward addressing our current space deficit of 55,396m2 (net) recognized by the ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur.

Our investment in the NVP, supported by more than $620M from the Government of Quebec, will serve to accelerate McGill’s contributions as a world leader in the domains of sustainability science and public policy by creating spaces that foster collaborative, innovative research and teaching across a multitude of disciplines. This is not just an investment in McGill, but in the future of all of us. The award-winning design for these new spaces skillfully adopts and reflects these commitments, incorporating principles of sustainable building, merging elegance with adaptable use, and reflecting the long-standing presence and continued influence of Indigenous peoples, and the Haudenosaunee in particular, on this territory.

The NVP design responds to McGill’s 52 Calls to Action, specifically to calls for increased culturally-relevant teaching spaces and public areas that reflect Indigenous visual and material culture. Design elements reflect the long-standing presence and continued influence of Indigenous people on the island of Montreal.  In keeping with these commitments, McGill has likewise committed itself to developing respectful partnerships with local Indigenous communities through their leadership and membership in a variety of contexts.

Additional information about the New Vic Project is available on the Project website. A comprehensive FAQ concerning the archeological investigation is available here.



Christopher Manfredi

Provost and Executive Vice-President (Academic)

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