Natives’ remains held at UTM


The Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto has been undergoing negotiations with the Huron-Wendat Nation to come to an agreement about the repatriation of native remains. The ancestors of the Huron-Wendat are currently being stored at the St. George and Mississauga campuses.

“We almost cried to see our ancestors lying in dusty boxes for so long,” Gaetan Sioui, Huron-Wendat Clan Chief, told The Toronto Star. In Huron-Wendat culture, one of the most unacceptable acts is to desecrate a gravesite. Ossuaries are sacred. In Huron-Wendat culture, it is traditionally believed that the bones contain the souls of their ancestors.

The gravesites of the Huron-Wendat Nation date back as far as the 14th century. Traditionally, deceased members are buried in mass graves with various possessions such as pipes, pots, and jewellery, which are also valuable for archaeological research.

Archaeological Services Inc. estimates that over 8,000 ossuaries were excavated between the 1950s and 70s to make room for urban development. Many remains have been studied and catalogued at the University of Toronto. Since then, there have been various reforms to research ethics in order to better respect the cultures and traditions of indigenous peoples.

Prof. Susan Pfeiffer of U of T’s Department of Anthropology has been involved in the negotiations and is looking to settle the dispute with sensitivity. “Times are different now. We are trying to handle these skeletal remains that were part of archaeological expeditions decades ago in a sensitive fashion, in partnership with the Huron-Wendat,” said Pfeiffer.

The difficulty lies in the lack of proper provincial legislation to assist in resolving research and heritage disputes. Negotiations were further prolonged by the unfortunate locations of the two parties involved. Since the Huron-Wendat Nation is based in Québec, whose provincial regulations on heritage differ form those of Ontario, it was difficult to compromise and share resources.

“We felt like we were breaking new ground,” said Pfeiffer. “The University of Toronto is taking this initiative because it is the right thing to do, not because there is legislation obligating us to do so.”

Unlike the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the United States, there is no formal legislation by the Government of Ontario that sets out laws for repatriation.

“We want to work with the university to repatriate the remains and re-bury them back in their place in a respectful manner,” said Sioui. The older the gravesite, the more difficult it becomes to identify the site with the correct First Nations group of origin.

David Donnelly, the lawyer overseeing the case, points out that the Government of Ontario has certain obligations to First Nations and that the necessary laws need to be instituted to right the injustices that have been committed in the past. Donnelly says that the province has failed to implement the appropriate tools to allow an agreement between the university and the First Nations to be resolved efficiently.

“Try and name another ethnic group in Ontario whose graves were repeatedly targetted and dug up. It’s only the First Nations,” said Donnelly.

Archaeological practices prior to the1970s were performed without regard for native rights and culture. Pfeiffer emphasizes the key role that education plays in moving forward with the issue.

“I’ve been struck by the desire of the First Nations people to have their origins and history known,” said Pfeiffer. “We build on heritage when we live in a city with a name of aboriginal origins such as Toronto. First Nations are also a part of the multicultural mix.”

While negotiations are nearing completion, the new burial site is yet to be determined. One possible location is the Kleinburg ossuary, which is owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. However, more than 500 graves have been desecrated at the Klienburg ossuary in the past.

Over the past decade, the City of Toronto has been in the process of creating a plan that will require archaeological assessments of potential dig sites prior to excavation. The City of Toronto has a master plan of archaeological resources which provides information and guidelines regarding the issue of cultural preservation and sensitivity when conducting research.