A battle is brewing in Montreal that mixes faith, history and politics, and could pit the city Irish community against Hydro Quebec, Mayor Denis Coderre and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Each year, on the last Sunday of May, hundreds of Montrealers place thousands of small white wooden crosses around a 28-tonne black stone that marks the mass grave of 6,000 famine Irish who died in the mid-19th century. They are buried beneath what is now a parking lot in an industrial part of the city.
As part of the ritual, the Ancient Order of Hibernians organizes a walk to the Stone. But this year, the event was as much a protest demonstration as it was a historical commemoration.
For the past five years, plans have been underway to build an Irish Famine interpretive centre on the site, and mark the cemetery’s footprint. This year, without warning, Hydro Quebec announced it had acquired the land for a power sub-station.
In response to a public outcry, Éric Martel, Hydro’s President and Chief Executive Officer said the corporation is “fully aware” of the significance of the site, and will show “utmost respect toward the burial grounds.”
A committee has been hastily formed to determine how best to honour the memory of those buried beneath it. Fergus Keyes, director of the Park Foundation, says he is willing to discuss the matter with Hydro-Quebec. But he remains skeptical of the power monopoly’s intentions.
“We have been working on these plans for a memorial park, and no one had the courtesy to tell us about this hidden stuff until now. We consider it unfair. Something has to be done. We are waiting to see what Hydro-Quebec has in mind,” Keyes told Convivium.
Before he was elected, Prime Minister Trudeau called the area “a sacred site.” and in May 2015 pledged his support for the memorial park. Similarly, two years ago Mayor Coderre “promised to do everything to make the park happen.”
In recognition of his support, Coderre was honoured earlier this year as Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick’s parade. Coderre told a meeting of the city’s executive committee in late May that with the landing having been sold he is “in a solution mode,” looking at “a series of options.”
Coderre was present for this year’s walk to the Stone and offered assurances his administration is committed to a solution “that is acceptable to all.”
The massive stone was pulled from the St. Lawrence River by Irish labourers in 1859 as they were building the Victoria Bridge. It was dragged ashore and put near an unmarked mound, which was all that remained of the burial site.
Initially, the stone and title to the gravesite were given to the Anglican Diocese of Montreal by the Grand Trunk Railway, (now CN) which owned the property. The Protestant elite of the day refused to recognize that the British had forced the dead out of Ireland by famine, and called the marker The Irish Fever Monument.
Catholics were conspicuously absent when the monument was dedicated “to preserve the remains of the dead from desecration.” by Bishop Francis Fulford
It is not the first fight to preserve the cemetery or the stone.
In 1900 the Grand Trunk Railway uprooted the black rock and moved it to another location far from the gravesite. Outraged by the corporate insensitivity, the Ancient Order of Hibernians claimed the Stone as its own, took the railway to court demanding its return, and won.
The stone was re-dedicated near its original location in 1913 in the median of a highway that leads to the Victoria bridge.
In the mid 1960s, the city wanted the memorial moved to make way for road improvements, but was faced with a public outcry,
In 1985 the Master Plan of the Montreal Urban Community zoned the graveyard for light industry and again wanted the stone moved, but following public protests thought otherwise.
The city not only left it where it is, but in the 1990s had it landscaped. Montreal’s Irish community clearly hopes the current Mayor, Prime Minister, and the principals of Hydro Quebec, will need no reminder of that history.
Convivium means living together. Would you join us in continuing to open and extend the conversation? Do you know someone who would enjoy this article? Send it to them now. Do you have a response to something we've published? Let us know!
Convivium publisher, Ray Pennings, writes the last Convivium column as a tribute to this unique platform, expressing the gratitude we feel for all of you who have breathed life into it for over a decade.
In this week's essay from Northern Ireland, Convivium's Peter Stockland encounters a young man whose grandfather was murdered on Bloody Sunday 1972 and waits to hear loyalist-unionist drums beat again in Belfast this Friday, July 12.