MONTREAL — The First Nation of Kahnawake south of Montreal will vote next month in a referendum on whether the remains of a Jesuit priest alleged to have committed sexual abuse should be exhumed and removed from the community.
Exhumation "was an idea proposed by community members, alleged victims and supporters,” Tonya Perron, one of the Mohawk Council's elected chiefs, said in an interview this week.
“They proposed having him removed from the territory, and it started a dialogue in the community about his remains being here in the first place. We don't have any precedent to go by.”
After the discovery last summer of what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., several Kahnawake residents came forward with allegations that Rev. Léon Lajoie had abused them during his time in the community. Lajoie, who was assigned to Kahnawake from 1961 to 1996, died in 1999 and was buried next to St. Francis Xavier Mission Church in Kahnawake.
The Jesuits of Canada said last fall after the allegations surfaced that a search of their archives found no correspondence containing complaints of abuse during Lajoie's career as a priest, but they promised a full investigation.
"We treat all allegations of sexual or other abuse with the utmost seriousness and concern," they said in a news release. "We are committed to working with the community to determine the facts."
Perron said the vote to be held March 25-26 is necessary because the former council agreed to the burial, but without seeking community members' consent. A non-Indigenous person doesn't have the right to burial on Mohawk territory, but Perron said an exception was made because of Lajoie's connections to the community.
"It’s not an easy issue to deal with, it’s very sensitive, because of all the traumas caused throughout the years with Indigenous people … When someone comes forward with allegations, how can you say you are going to dismiss it, or say it’s not serious enough to ask for the removal?” she said, adding that the council wanted community members to have the final say.
A survey released on Feb. 21 following consultations of 354 Kahnawake members indicated 80 per cent believe the community should determine the fate of Lajoie's remains, with more than half of participants saying they want him to be buried elsewhere.
Melissa Montour, the spokesperson for the group demanding the exhumation, said the council should just approve the exhumation instead of holding a vote that is turning the matter into a political issue at the expense of sexual abuse survivors.
"The fact that this has even become politicized is disgusting and beyond victim shaming," Montour said on Wednesday.
She said that while the request for exhumation was made a few months ago, the allegations of sexual abuse against Lajoie were previously known in the community. It was the discovery of multiple unmarked graves at Canada's residential schools, she said, that prompted the survivors to speak up.
"It’s trauma," Montour said. "These things are triggers to the dark unspoken history across this country."
The Jesuits expect to conclude their investigation into the sexual allegations by Friday, and they said in a statement Tuesday they will respect Kahnawake's decision, regardless of the investigation's outcome.
José Sánchez, a spokesman for the order, said they are treating the allegations seriously and will pay for all related costs of a potential exhumation and reburial outside the community.
"The spirit of the Jesuits is to support the desire of the community, and they will ensure it will be done in a respectful way," Sánchez said in an interview.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Feb. 23, 2022.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press