Native remains held in U of T basements

U of T’s anthropology department is being asked to repatriate thousands of Huron-Wendat ancestral remains to their descendents. The skeletal remains, dug up between the 1950s and early 1970s by archaeologists, currently lie in the basements of U of T’s St. George and Mississauga anthropology buildings.

Attorney David Donnelly has been representing the Huron-Wendat Nation since 2006, when he “got a tip” about the existence of the bones in U of T’s lying in the Anthropology buildings’ basement. “The University of Toronto had skeletons in their basement and preferred not to tell anybody,” he said. “It is profoundly tragic.”

“There are different ways [in which] people have approached excavations for analysis,” said U of T anthropology professor Susan Pfeiffer, who is also involved in the negotiation with the Huron-Wendat. Before the early 1970s, Pfeiffer said there was no framework to regulating archaeology. “We reflect on the impact of our actions and we get better.”

Pfeiffer said the skeletal remains have not been used for a long time and that the university’s Department of Anthropology “has no reason to be reluctant to return them.”

The Ontario Heritage Trust has retained responsibility for the remains at the Mississauga campus. According to Pfeiffer, the land the remains were dug up from was owned by the Ontario Heritage Trust, which permitted the excavations.

A representative from the Ontario Heritage Trust could not be reached to confirm this statement.

Link to Huron-Wendat long known

Pfeiffer said the Department of Anthropology has always known, through research analysis, that the remains were linked to the Huron-Wendat, but added that the current location of the Huron-Wendat has been a barrier in returning the remains. “Heritage is a provincial responsibility and not [a] federal [one]. The fact that the Huron-Wendat live in Quebec has slowed us down quite a bit.”

Donnelly said that location cannot be used as an excuse not to tell the Huron-Wendat about their ancestors’ remains. “The University of Toronto is a world-class university and they could have looked in a yellow page to find the Huron-Wendat.”

However, Donnelly said it is encouraging that U of T has agreed to repatriate the remains in a cooperative and respectful manner. “That is the very small silver lining.”

He also said the Ontario Heritage Trust has not returned calls and e-mails about starting a similar negotiation. “If they don’t co-operate [in the same manner as U of T], we will prosecute them under the Criminal Code of Canada.”

“Most institutions are not forthcoming about their possession of ancestral remains,” said Lee Maracle, Aboriginal studies faculty member from the Sto:Loh Nation. “What is true is that we are the only people in the country whose remains are violated and who must seek redress via negotiations to have them returned.

“No Indigenous community was ever asked to have their remains committed to violation.”

Maracle said the Huron-Wendat had a similar case in which the Canadian government kept 500 sets of human bones in the basement of the parliamentary building in Ottawa. After 10 years of negotiation, the remains were finally returned to the Huron-Wendat in the year 2000, she said.

The Ontario Cemeteries Act

In section eight of regulation 133/92, the Ontario Cemeteries Act stipulates that a representative of a person whose remains are interred in an unapproved cemetery can consent to scientific analysis on the remains.

The regulation defines a representative as: “the nearest First Nations Government or other community of aboriginal people which is willing to act as a representative and whose members have a close cultural affinity to the interred person.”

Donnelly said the regulation assumes “any Indian would do” and asked the University of Toronto Law School to cooperate with his firm to reform the act.

In cases where there is no apparent sign of burial at the cemetery — known as “irregular burial” — the current land owner is responsible for the remains.

“Like all people, [Aboriginal] people have great respect for their ancestors who made it possible for them to be here,” said Donnelly. “Burial places are sacred.”

Pfeiffer said the Anthropology department at St. George wants as little publicity as possible about the existence of the remains at U of T.

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