Crowds gather around the black stone on May 28 that marks the memorial to the 6,000 Irish refugees who died after arriving in Canada in 1947. Photo by Alan Hustak

Montreal's Irish protest sale of ‘sacred’ land to Hydro-Quebec

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • May 31, 2017

MONTREAL – Hundreds of Montrealers ended a solemn march on May 28 by placing thousands of small white wooden crosses around a 28-tonne black stone that marks the mass grave of 6,000 Irish famine refugees who died 170 years ago.

The “March to the Stone” is an annual event, but this year the commemorative ceremony doubled as a protest demonstration.

Montreal’s Irish community is outraged that Hydro-Quebec has purchased the land, regarded as sacred, in order to build a sub-station.

“We have been working on plans for a memorial park for five years and no one had the courtesy to tell us about this hidden stuff until now,” said Fergus Keyes, director of the Park Foundation.

“We consider it unfair. Something has to be done.”

Plans were well underway to build an Irish Famine interpretive centre on the site of what is currently a parking lot in an industrial part of the city. There was no warning of Hydro-Quebec’s intention to acquire the land.

A public outcry prompted Éric Martel, Hydro-Quebec’s President and CEO, to declare that the corporation is “fully aware” of the significance of the site and will show “utmost respect toward the burial grounds.”

A committee was hastily formed to begin an archeological survey and determine how to honour the memory of those buried there.

Keyes says he is willing to discuss the matter with Hydro-Quebec, but he remains skeptical.

“We are waiting to see what Hydro-Quebec has in mind. We would prefer that Hydro not build anything at that site. We’ll have to see where it goes.”

Before he was elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau called the area “a sacred site.” In May 2015 he pledged his support for the memorial park.

Similarly, two years ago Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre “promised to do everything to make the park happen.” In recognition of his support, Coderre, who has Irish roots, was honoured earlier this year as Grand Marshall of Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Parade.

Following the sale of the land, Coderre said he is now “in a solution mode” and looking at “a series of options.” He said his administration is committed to a solution “acceptable to all.”

Each year, on the last Sunday of May, the Ancient Order of Hibernians holds a memorial walk to the stone. 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 site where about 6,000 newly arrived Irish were buried.

At the height of the Irish potato famine in 1847, more than 100,000 starving people were put on ships to Canada. Many died en route and an estimated 20,000 more died in “fever sheds” at landing spots in Atlantic Canada, along the St. Lawrence and in Toronto. Montreal took in an estimated 75,000 Irish famine refugees.

This is not the first fight to preserve the cemetery or the black stone. In 1900 the Grand Trunk Railway uprooted the stone and moved it to a location far from the gravesite. Outraged, the Ancient Order of Hibernians claimed the stone as its own, took the railway to court to demand its return, and won.

The stone was re-dedicated near its original location in 1913. It sits 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 backed away in the face of a public outcry. Another city plan to move the stone in 1985 was shelved amid public protests.

The city not only left the stone alone but in the 1990s landscaped the land around it.

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