Gail Swainson Urban Affairs Reporter / Toronto Star
After more than four years of sensitive and sometimes testy negotiations, the Huron-Wendat Nation are on the brink of repatriating the bones of thousands of ancestors that were “robbed from their graves” years ago by archaeologists, studied and then stored in crumbling cardboard boxes at the University of Toronto.
“There are a couple thousand of our people waiting to return home,” Huron-Wendat Clan Chief Gaetan Sioui said Thursday. “When we went to see them, we almost cried to see our ancestors lying in dusty boxes for so long.”
The plundering of sacred gravesites, many in the GTA, and the casual storage of their ancestors is a painful part of Huron-Wendat history and they look forward to the day the remains can be reinterred, he said.
“The mission is clear,” Sioui added. “We want to work with the university to repatriate the remains and rebury them back in their place in a respectful manner.”
The Huron-Wendat Nation and university officials are in the final stages of hammering out an agreement that would involve turning the sacred remains over to the Quebec-based First Nation band council.
Talks between the Huron-Wendat and other Southern Ontario First Nations groups such as the Mississaugas of Scugog, the Kawartha Anishnabe and Six Nations of the Grand, among others, would be held to discuss a suitable final resting place. Most of the bones are Huron-Wendat, though the remains of several hundred bodies are from the Neutral Nation.
The bones would then be moved to a reburial location, still to be determined. One possibility is the Kleinburg ossuary, where more than 500 bodies were unearthed in the late 1960s. The Kleinburg site is currently owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.
The Huron-Wendat Nation were tipped off to the collection of bones and burial artifacts about four years ago and — horrified at the sacrilege — began a long negotiation process with U of T officials aimed at returning as many of their ancestors as possible to at least one of the mass graves raided many years ago.
U of T anthropology Professor Susan Pfeiffer, who is involved in the negotiations, said cultural sensibilities around how sites are excavated and studied have changed.
“Times are different now,” Pfeiffer said Thursday. “We are trying to handle these skeletal remains that were part of archaeological expeditions decades ago in a sensitive fashion, in a partnership with the Huron-Wendat.
“For me, personally, this is a matter of trying to do the right thing and bring closure to the past,” she added.
David Donnelly, a Toronto lawyer representing the Huron-Wendat, said the insensitive storage of aboriginal remains is a blot on academia and society as a whole.
“Try and name another ethnic group in Ontario whose graves were repeatedly targeted and dug up,” Donnelly said Thursday. “It’s only First Nations.”
Huron-Wendat believe the bones of their ancestors are sacred because they contain their souls. The mass graves, or ossuaries, of about 2,000 First Nations people were dug up by archaeologists between the 1950s and the late 1970s. The burial sites, many now covered by subdivisions, date from as early as the 14th century — long before contact with Europeans.
The ancestors of the Huron-Wendat lived across a vast swath of southern Ontario for many centuries until 1648, when, weakened by deadly epidemics, they were driven into Quebec by war with other First Nations groups.
Over the years, the remains were ferried to the University of Toronto for study and cataloguing. They are now stored in banker’s boxes at two campuses: Mississauga and St. George, where they are kept in the basement of the anthropology building.
At least 500, those from the Kleinburg ossuary, are under the care of the province’s Ontario Heritage Trust and are not yet covered by the agreement.
“The Ontario government is lagging in its legal and moral obligations to the Huron-Wendat and other First Nations,” Donnelly said. “Only immediate law reform can make amends.”
The Huron-Wendat are contemplating legal action against the province for the desecration of human remains, because of a failure to deal with the U of T remains in a suitable fashion, he added.
Ron Williamson, considered one of Ontario’s pre-eminent archaeologists, said archaeological practices up until the 1970s were exploitive of native rights, culture and history.
“There was a different sensibility then that derived from a longstanding practice that was, quite frankly, racist,” Williamson said. “But by the 1990s, no one would dream of digging an ossuary without First Nations consultation.”
Earlier this summer, a controversy erupted over the presence of the remains of 22 Inuit at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. They had been sent south from the Labrador community of Zoar by an archaeologist in the 1920s. Details still have to be worked out with the Nunatsiavut, but the bones are scheduled to be repatriated.