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Canadian museums have been painfully slow to return the millions of Indigenous cultural objects and human remains in their collections – and Indigenous communities need tougher laws and federal funding to speed the process.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Canadian Museums Association (CMA), which was assigned the job of reviewing the situation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although repatriation efforts date back to the 1990s, a tiny fraction of the estimated 6.7 million objects and human remains in Canadian collections have been returned.

In 2015, the commission’s calls to action included a request that the federal government fund the CMA to work alongside Indigenous peoples to ensure museum policies were in compliance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although UNDRIP dates to 2007, Canada only legally adopted the declaration, which is aspirational rather than binding, last year. It states that Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination and to maintain and revive cultural practices. Article 11 specifically calls on states to provide redress for cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their consent.

The CMA report, which was released Tuesday, is intended to help museums come into compliance with UNDRIP. It makes 10 basic recommendations, of which the most important are a call for federal legislation that would enforce repatriation and a demand that the federal government start permanently funding repatriation. Identifying a claim and getting something returned can be a long and costly process because of the research, paperwork, travel and shipping involved. The report also recommends that the government fund the Indigenous cultural and heritage centres that might receive or interpret repatriated material.

And the report establishes new standards for museums in dealing with repatriation. For example, Indigenous rights holders must be allowed to determine how best to house or lay to rest repatriated objects and remains. Where there are competing claims for objects, the CMA standards recommend that museums support negotiations between Indigenous communities so that these claims are resolved rather than dropped, which has often been the case previously.

If the recommendations seem tough but straightforward, the report’s big surprise is its revelations about the scope of the problem. Using a 2019 government survey, the CMA estimates there are 6.7 million Indigenous objects or human remains in Canadian museums, and that a quarter of cultural institutions have some Indigenous holdings. However, the percentage that hold human remains is tiny, only 1.3 per cent.

The lion’s share of the holdings, 94 per cent, belong to a handful of institutions with large archeological collections. They weren’t named in the original survey but the CMA estimates that they are Parks Canada; le Laboratoire et la Réserve d’archéologie du Québec in Quebec City; the McCord Museum in Montreal; the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau; the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ont.; the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg; the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife; and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.

The 6.7 million estimate does not include international collections, and what has been returned from Canada and abroad so far is a drop in the bucket. For example, the Haida in B.C. have spent more than $1-million over 30 years to repatriate the remains of 500 ancestors from museums and universities, but know of 12,000 pieces in 300 museums around the world that are attributed to the Haida.

The circumstances under which cultural objects or human remains were obtained are often murky. There are examples of outright theft: Beothuk remains returned to Newfoundland in 2020 from the National Museum of Scotland were stolen from a burial site by explorer William Cormack in 1827. West Coast objects were repeatedly seized during the years of the federal ban on potlatch ceremonies from 1884 to 1951 and then passed to museums. Although the report notes there are many instances of trade goods sold to both settlers and other Indigenous groups, sales of cultural objects may also have been made under duress.

“Some of the standards described in this report may seem aspirational, severe or overwhelming,” write authors Stephanie Danyluk and Rebecca MacKenzie. “These museum standards have been set with the understanding that achieving these will take time, respect and reciprocity.” Still, they conclude reconciliation is a gift for museums as an opportunity to support Indigenous self-determination.