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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Our home and native archaeology

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Kris Nahrgang is telling me about his uncle. "In the 1970s he and some friends took some shovels to one of the old cemeteries downtown," he says. The stunt outraged a lot of people, but it served as an opportunity for Nahrgang, Chief of the Kawartha Nishnawbe First Nation, to raise a sorely neglected point about Toronto's past: "How is that different from what's happening to our people?"

Nahrgang's community is around 700 people strong, centered on land north of Peterborough. Technically, their land stretches much further. "Toronto is in my territory," he says, describing a land treaty that stretches from North Bay down to Lake Ontario. Upwards of 50 million people lived in North America before European contact, many of them along the shores of Lake Ontario, and they are all buried somewhere.

He tells me disturbing stories of developers quickly paving over bones or pottery before native rights groups or archaeologists could be notified. At one site, Nahrgang tells me, developers fed bones through a wood chipper and relocated the remains to another site to obscure their origins. "We need to get in with archaeology first," he says, "before the developers break ground."

What makes Nahrgang unique is that he is an archaeologist, one of only a handful of Native descent working in Ontario. This causes some tension with his people. "Native people don't have much of a reason to trust archaeologists," he says, "but we need to work together to work through these issues. We owe it to future generations to take a look at the history and preserve the story." Nahrgang works closely with Toronto archaeology firm Archaeological Services Inc. (ASI), the leading consultants on archaeology in the GTA. Much has changed in recent years to protect artifacts found in the city. "Toronto is a leading example of a city that is protecting its past," he claims. In 2004, ASI drafted the City of Toronto Archaeological Master Plan, consisting of sensitive sites and no-dig zones where there is strong evidence of Native settlement. Now, developers are required by municipal law to call an archaeologist before ground is broken.

Similar rules apply in nearby municipalities. In 2005, when construction crews in York Region broke ground to widen Weston Road, they realized the road was built over a Native ossuary containing up to 400 bodies. York officials responded by moving the road around the burial site, erecting a monument, and hosting a rededication ceremony with Chiefs from three different Native communities.

Although Nahrgang is buoyed by stories of success like these, he doesn't see why it should fall to municipalities to bear what he sees as a Federal responsibility. "It's left to the taxpayers of Toronto to deal with the Federal government's lack of leadership," he says. He suggests that developers who lose money through site excavation should be eligible for tax breaks from the feds. "The Federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the history and artifacts of the First Nations people," he says.

Technically, the responsibility for dealing with artifacts found in the province falls to Ontario's Ministry of Culture. When anybody digs up an artifact, they have a responsibility to inform the Ministry. However, says Nahrgang, "They don't have the manpower or the money to be effective." The Ministry of Culture has never charged anybody with breaking this law, despite hundreds of reported infractions.

In order to beef up the Ministry of Culture's guidelines, Nahrgang and a handful of others served as the Technical Advisory Group on a project called the Archaeology Customer Service Project. The report suggested more rigorous guidelines for fieldwork, and focused on the obligations archaeologists have to First Nations people.

"Archaeologists need to consult the people whose ancestors they are digging up, instead of just digging them up and dropping off a box of bones," he says. Some vocal archaeologists campaigned against the recommendation because they felt it increased their workload and, to date, the Ministry of Culture has yet to implement the guidelines.

If the political will to protect Native history existed, Nahrgang estimates they could have a framework up and running within a couple of months. It frustrates Nahrgang that First Nations issues are essentially absent from the historical narrative of Toronto. "For most people, history begins with contact," he says. "The reason people settled where they did, though, is because these regions were cleared by my people."

For thousands of years, the Rouge River was a place of congregation for First Nations people, and many sites along the riverbanks remain today. "We must protect these sites as the crown jewels of this country," Nahrgang writes in a paper for Ontario Archaeology. "It is all we have."