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Ancient Remains Found at Indigenous Burial Site in Toronto Area

The work of a Toronto construction crew came to a pause on January 5 after they uncovered human remains in an ancient Indigenous burial ground. The work crew was in the process of installing a water line near Greektown in downtown Toronto when the remains were discovered.

After uncovering human remains, workers called the police to investigate. According to a spokesperson from the Toronto Police, the remains were discovered Friday in the early afternoon. Police and anthropologist for the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, Greg Olsen, were on site before long. The city says construction has been paused for the foreseeable future to allow for proper inspection by anthropologists.

The remains of at least three people have so far been identified at the site. Long bones and teeth found there indicate this was an Indigenous burial site. The teeth are determined to have been from ancient Indigenous people by the signs of wear from eating foods that had been ground up using stone tools. The soft stones they used to grind their food would leave stone dust in their food, causing specific wear patterns on the teeth, particularly the molars.

This most recent discovery is the first of many in that particular region of the city. According to Ols en, this is the fifth confirmed Indigenous burial site he has played a part in uncovering in Toronto in the last four months. The area of discovery has been known as a site of archeological interest since 1886, when members of the Canadian Institute led an excavation of the area. A plaque designating the 1886 discoveries is mounted some 10 metres away from the site of the newly discovered remains. The initial search in 1886 saw the area be named the Withrow Site.

Jon Johnson, head organizer of First Story Toronto – an Indigenous-led organization focused on research around the historic Indigenous presence in the Toronto area – suspects the remains are from a Huron-Wendat burial ground. It is difficult to say for sure as multiple nations have settled in the area for as far back as 13,000 years. Toronto as a whole sits on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Huron-Wendat peoples.

Artifacts of the Huron-Wendat have been found in the area several times, many of which are dated 1,000 years before European arrival in the area. According to Johnson, hundreds of Wendat sites have been discovered in the Greater Toronto Area. The remains discovered last week are estimated to be between 700 and 1,000 years old.

The Huron-Wendat typically built their villages near large, healthy bodies of water, as did many other Indigenous groups. This allowed for access to water for consumption and travel. The Huron-Wendat maintained agricultural societies and would move their villages to avoid over-farming the soil, depleting it of nutrients and minerals, yielding a weaker crop.

When a member of the village died, the community would cover the body of the deceased with stones until the village moved. Upon moving, the dead would be collected and placed into a communal ossuary, a mass burial site. Considering the discovery of bones from multiple people, it is likely that part of an ossuary was discovered Friday morning.

At the site of the discovery was an object that resembled a tool or spearhead. When it comes to burial grounds, the ancestry of the bands that lived here can be traced to a certain degree. The same cannot be done when tools are found, as these were prominent trade routes for several bands for thousands of years. Spear points have been found nearby and date back approximately 7,000 years.

The chief coroner has discussed the remains with two bands, the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and the Six Nations of the Grand River. What happens with the remains will be left to their discretion. The remains have been given to the Mississaugas of the Credit as the area where the remains were discovered is part of their treaty land. A representative of the Band has said the remains will be treated with respect and dignity.

When the 1886 Withrow Site was discovered, more than 30 skeletons were found in a single ossuary. Also found at the site were an axe, a chisel, a knife and a barbed arrowhead, all made from stone. These tools would have been rushed to museums in Toronto and perhaps even across Canada, as was the custom of the time when it came to the discovery of ancient Indigenous artifacts.

For many generations since the 1800s, the discovery of Indigenous artifacts has been like finding gold. Discoveries of spiritual tokens and ancient tools went out to the most prestigious museums in the country and across the world for all to see. Often, artifacts of spiritual significance were pulled apart in order to be fully examined and numbered by museum curators in order to document every piece.

In the era of Truth and Reconciliation, artifacts are handled much differently. What happens to the items discovered will be determined by the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and Six Nations of the Grand River. This is hardly expected to be the last discovery made in the city, once a hotbed for trade, and each case will be handled similarly.

Today, many Indigenous communities are allowed to own their history and preserve their culture through the artifacts of their ancestors as museums across Canada gradually repatriate articles. For many, it is a matter of spiritual and cultural protection of their ancestors as, in many instances, artifacts were intentionally buried or kept in a particular way that settler curators did not understand when the items were rediscovered.

The process of museums actively returning artifacts to First Nations began in the 1970s and has slowly carried on to today. In 2017, the Canadian Government returned several of Louis Riel’s personal items to the Metis National Council, including his personal crucifix and some of his clothing. In 2023, the Nuxalk Nation successfully repatriated a totem pole that had been taken over a century ago. The totem pole had been kept in the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC.

In the same year, the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre decided to return a set of Mi’kmaq regalia that they had been displaying. Returning these artifacts to the nations they belong to is a step in a positive direction, a step toward Truth and Reconciliation.

Across Canada and across the world, thousands upon thousands of artifacts are stored in glass boxes, owned by the highest bidder rather than the proper owner, the ancestors of those who created this artifact. These items were stolen to be put on display in grand museums. Now, they are returning to their rightful owners.

Many First Nations have created their own museums to share their culture, while in other instances, artifacts are in safekeeping. There is much that can be learned from many of these artifacts, but what will happen with them is at the discretion of the nations the artifacts are from.

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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