Bones of First Nation’s ancestors that had spent decades in boxes at the University of Toronto and the Ontario Heritage Trust are re-interred at a heritage site near Vaughan.
By: Jane Gerster Staff Reporter
There was no bitterness and no anger, just a sense of closure as members of the Huron-Wendat Nation reburied their ancestors Saturday.
“This is it,” Konrad Sioui, grand chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, said at a banquet following the private ceremony. “We succeeded, my friends.”
After years of negotiations and decades spent in boxes at the University of Toronto, the bones of 1,760 ancestors were finally laid to rest.
Sioui only briefly mentioned how he felt the moment he first laid eyes on the boxed bones in the basement of the university years ago, instead smiling and speaking fondly of the reburial and better relations in the future.
The reburial was a long time coming for the Quebec-based Huron-Wendat, who have been fighting for seven years to see the bones of their ancestors — which according to traditional beliefs contain their souls and are sacred — returned to the earth.
“We had a beautiful day; the eagles came, and we couldn’t have asked for a better day to do what we had to do,” Sioui told dozens of First Nations people and representatives from the Ontario government and the Ontario Heritage Trust, who worked jointly to see the bones repatriated.
The bones of about 2,000 people and their grave goods — the items buried with the deceased — were dug up and studied by staff and students at the University of Toronto during archeological digs in southern Ontario in the mid-1900s. Most of the bones were held by the university, but some were at the Ontario Heritage Trust, at the university’s Mississauga campus.
The purpose of the digs was to identify, study and preserve material about the aboriginal peoples that once lived in the Great Lakes region, but in most cases First Nations people had no knowledge of the digs, nor had they consented to them.
But that wasn’t what Sioui wanted to focus on: “We could be blaming . . . we could be angry, but we will not be,” he said.
More than 500 of the remains dug up in the late 1960s came from a natural archeological heritage site near Vaughan. The returned remains were all reburied at that site, now named the Thonnakona Ossuary, since many of the original burial sites have since been built over.
Dozens of member of the Huron-Wendat Nation came in for the event from Quebec, where they’ve lived since 1648, when they were driven into Quebec by war with other First Nations groups after being weakened by epidemics.
It’s taken hard work and careful co-operation, University of Toronto president David Naylor said, but students and staff have learned from the experience. He called the reburial an emotional day, the end of a journey.
“Today, these remains are rightfully returned to the earth, to hallowed ground.”