top of page

The Mohawk Mothers and the Disturbing History of the Old Royal Vic

By Clara Frey 

Staff Writer

The Allen Memorial. Via GUARDIAN NEWS

On October 27, 2023, a group of Indigenous Elders, called the Mohawk Mothers  (Kahnistensera in Mohawk), became the first ever self-represented Indigenous Peoples to be granted an injunction in a Canadian Court . 

The Gazette reported that, after facing McGill University and the Societé D’Infrastructures du Québec (SQI), Justice Gregory Moore granted the Mohawk Mothers a safeguard order, which halted excavation and construction work on the grounds of Montreal’s former Royal Victoria teaching Hospital (affiliated with McGill University). 

The Royal Victoria Hospital, which closed its doors to patients in April 2015, is now the site of McGill University’s New Vic Project. According to McGill’s website, “The New Vic Project is a revitalization of the site of the former Royal-Victoria Hospital,” which aims to transform the former hospital  into “a state-of-the-art research, teaching, and learning hub.” 

The Mohawk Mothers are concerned that the site of the former hospital, which is located on unceded ancestral Iroquois land, contains the remains of Indigenous children used as test subjects in MKULTRA experiments at the Royal Vic's psychiatric ward - the Allan Memorial Institute - also according to The Gazette. The Allen Memorial is housed in the Ravenscrag, former mansion of Sir Hugh Allan, a 19th-century shipping magnate. 

Disguised as a project conducting research into schizophrenia, MKULTRA was a covert CIA program. During the Cold War era, the CIA took an interest in Scottish-American psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron, Director of the Allan Memorial Institute, for his research into the treatment of schizophrenia. Cameron’s research was characterized by its experimental and unethical methods. 

His approach involved “depatterning” patients by erasing their memories and reducing them to a child-like state, followed by a reconstruction of their personalities through “psychic driving.” Patients were subjected to repetitive taped messages while immobilized and sedated, sometimes for up to 16 hours a day. Patients also underwent other experimental treatments such as drug-induced comas, the administration of psychotropic drugs like LSD, and electroshock therapy at intensities far beyond normal practice - often simultaneously. Some patients were also placed in sensory deprivation environments and subjected to extreme levels of sedation and deprivation of basic needs. The result was often severe retrograde amnesia, leaving patients unable to recall their past memories and needing to relearn basic skills. 

The revelation of buried human remains surfaced through a convergence of archival records and the firsthand account of Lana Ponting, an 81-year-old survivor of the MKULTRA mind control experiments. “I was a typical, rebellious teenager,” said Ponting in her defence. “I ran away from home numerous times and finally, one day [...], I got picked up by the police downtown. [...] Next thing I knew, I was in the Allan.” 

Sent to Allan in 1958, Ponting says she was electroshocked, given LSD and other drugs, sexually assaulted, and made to listen to recordings telling her she was a “good girl” and a “bad girl” for hours at a time.  She also describes seeing hospital staff digging graves with red shovels, and the sudden vanishing of her Indigenous friend and fellow patient, Morningstar. 

  “Morningstar was also given shock treatments. [..] I went looking for her one day, and I could not find her. [...] And people said ‘Oh, she's gone.’ Where did she go? I don't know. She was just gone.” 

The Mohawk Mothers’ case also relied on the research of Philippe Blouin, a McGill PhD candidate in anthropology, who investigated Cameron’s secretive medical procedures. 

In his affidavit, Blouin wrote: “Given the nature of the treatments at the Allan and its affiliated institutions, there is … a high possibility that Indigenous patients could have died from them, whether from lobotomies, coma shock therapy, electroshock, massive doses of experimental drugs or other potentially lethal treatments.” 

“There is sadly a high possibility that test subjects having died from experiments would have been buried on site, as was done in residential schools across Canada.”

The issue of unmarked Indigenous graves entered the national spotlight in 2021 following ground-penetrating radar discoveries at a former British Columbia residential school, with subsequent findings further amplifying the need for accountability and transparency.

After securing the injunction on October 27, 2022, the Mohawk Mothers engaged in discussions with McGill University and the SQI to collaborate on devising an archaeological strategy for the former Royal Victoria Hospital site. As part of the agreement, the Mohawk Mothers have the authority to designate "cultural monitors,'' who will oversee excavations and perform ceremonial duties. 

On June 29, 2023, cadaver dogs detected evidence of human remains on the premises of the former hospital site. All three dogs signalled on approaching the same area of the wall near the Hersey Pavilion, which served as the hospital's nurses' residence.

Despite the absence of further concrete evidence, the Mohawk Mothers Case has the potential to establish a new precedent for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Amidst their ongoing reckoning with colonial legacies and systemic injustices, the Mohawk Mothers say that “the need for Indigenous-led investigations into past wrongs is more critical than ever.”  While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Final Report marked a pivotal moment, the recent uncovering of unmarked graves and burial sites of Indigenous children across Canada highlights the necessity to extend our inquiries beyond Residential Schools to encompass other institutions where Indigenous children were placed, such as hospitals, correctional homes, reformatories, and psychiatric wards. 

Indigenous communities rightfully demand closure, truth, and the opportunity to honour and mourn their lost loved ones properly. Excavation work will resume this summer. 


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page