A closer look at U of T’s policy on the repatriation of Indigenous human remains

Reviewing the history, policy of returning Indigenous belongings

According to a 2017 Aboriginal Peoples Television Network investigation, U of T is in possession of bone fragments belonging to 550 Indigenous people. These remains are being held in museums across the world in addition to here at U of T. Recently, the Liberal Party platform promised to work with Indigenous peoples in order to create a framework for returning stolen artifacts and ancestral remains to their communities — calling into question how U of T may operate on repatriation moving forward.

U of T itself occupies land historically belonging to the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River, territory subject to the Dish With One Spoon treaty, which was a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee to share the land.

The excavation of human remains was unregulated in Ontario until 1975. In the decades prior, numerous site excavations, including those of human burial grounds, resulted in U of T’s Department of Anthropology becoming the repository of Indigenous, as well as European settler, skeletal remains.

In 1999, the Department of Anthropology released its policy on repatriation, which underscored the need to treat human remains with respect, vowed cooperation with the involved parties in their repatriation efforts, and outlined the process by which human remains and artifacts can be returned.

This process includes a review by “a committee consisting of a minimum of two representatives from the Department of Anthropology and a representative of First Nations communities” in order to ensure the request is genuine and there are no competing claims. The committee’s report is then forwarded to the chair of the department for approval.

In November 2018, Rainy Rivers First Nation repatriated over 40 of their ancestors’ remains and 5,000 artifacts that had been taken and stored at the Royal Ontario Museum.

According to Chief Robin McGinnis, the repatriation process was lengthy because Rainy Rivers First Nations wanted to catalogue all items prior to their return. However, McGinnis told The Varsity that when the “funeral ceremonies [took place] and they get put in their final resting place… where they belonged… there’s a big sense of relief now.”

Kayleigh Speirs is the administration manager at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre and worked alongside Rainy Rivers First Nations during the repatriation process. Both Speirs and McGinnis agree that Indigenous peoples should lead repatriation decision-making and that more effort needs to be made by institutions to inform communities when they are in possession of their ancestral remains and artefacts. Speirs said this burden should not be left on the communities.

In 2013, over 1,700 Huron-Wendat Nation ancestral remains were reburied after a lawyer for the nation at the time, David Donnelly, happened upon the information that they had been stored in the basement of Sidney Smith Hall.

The Department of Anthropology then began collaborating with the Huron-Wendat Nation to analyze the ancestral remains in order to gather information about the lives of the deceased prior to their reburial.

U of T’s repatriation policy reserves the right for the department “to conduct a thorough inventory and scholarly documentation… for the purposes of scientific inquiry and heritage preservation” before the release of any objects or remains.

As far as performing research on Indigenous remains, Donnelly believes that it is only acceptable when consent is received from the descendants, as was the case with the Huron-Wendat repatriation. Otherwise, the university is working with stolen property, Donnelly said.

With regard to a national framework on repatriation promised by the Liberal government, Donnelly believes funding for Indigenous groups to access lawyers and experts is imperative. Donnelly explained “for any First Nation to engage with an academic institution or a government around a problem not of their making, if you don’t provide them funding so they can hire experts, you’re really robbing them a second time.”

In response to questions as to whether the university would review its policy in light of the Liberal Party’s promises for a national repatriation framework, a spokesperson for the university wrote in an email to The Varsity that “The University feels strongly about the responsibility to ensure repatriation is conducted in a sensitive manner in close collaboration with Indigenous groups.” The spokesperson explained that “the University periodically reviews its policies and guidelines.”

They also noted that “formal requests for repatriation may come from family members or their descendants, or from recognized Indigenous groups.”

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