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From the left, Charlene DeBassige, Philip Cote and Danielle Migwans stand at the site where ancient Indigenous remains were found on Withrow Avenue in Toronto's east side, on Jan. 12.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

On a blustery morning in Toronto this week, a class of kindergarteners bundled up in snowsuits and Paw Patrol tuques marched out single file – not to the playground, but instead toward a nearby tent.

Last weekend, centuries-old Indigenous remains were found just a stone’s throw from their Riverdale school, stumbled upon by city workers digging a new waterline. For Indigenous communities, the discovery – in a wealthy, largely white neighbourhood – was yet another reminder of the long, painful history of this country’s treatment of Indigenous people.

The situation could easily have tipped over into tensions. But in the days since, Indigenous groups have lit a sacred fire and erected a tent as part of a vigil there, transforming the burial site into a place for connection, healing and learning.

“We use the fire to pray,” Melvin Pine, an Ojibwe man tending to it told the kindergarteners from Withrow Avenue Junior Public School on Wednesday.

All morning, he and a small handful of other Indigenous community members had been giving these lessons, with teachers bringing their classes out to learn about the importance of respecting ancestors and the role of sacred fires in Indigenous cultures.

“I’m going to pray for my mother,” Mr. Pine said. “I love my mother. I hope she has a real nice day.” He fed some tobacco into the fire, drawing attention to the ashes as they floated up into the sky.

As the children walked away, they shouted the words of Ojibwe that the men had taught them: “chi-miigwech,” or “big thank you.”

The remains of three people were uncovered at the site last Friday, said Greg Olson, an anthropologist with the province’s forensic pathology agency. He was able to identify them as Indigenous based on the shape of their teeth and jawlines. He also found the remnants of what appeared to be a spear point. He estimates they’d been buried there for at least 500 years.

Decades ago, anthropologists might not have thought twice about removing the remains for testing. But Mr. Olson said protocols have since evolved, with a better understanding of Indigenous traditions.

In this case, he conducted his investigation on-site, to avoid further disturbing the remains. He then reburied them with some tobacco he carries with him – a sign of respect for the dead.

“People are saying, ‘Why are you just finding these now?’” Mr. Olson said. “But the history here is known.”

Documents dated 1986 from the Ontario Archeological Society refer to the area around Withrow Avenue in Riverdale as “an old Indian cemetery.” Between 40 and 400 Indigenous bodies were discovered there a century earlier, according to the documents.

“I would suggest when these houses were built,” Mr. Olson said, “they probably hit burials and didn’t say a darn thing.”

For now, the waterline construction has been put on pause while the city works with local Indigenous groups to figure out what to do next. A tarp and fencing surround the burial site as protection.

Tanya Hill-Montour, an archeological supervisor at Six Nations of the Grand River and member of Kee:Way – a Chiefs of Ontario committee that handles burial sites and unmarked graves – has been involved with the discussions with the city.

The next step, she said, will be to ensure that the remains are left in place, which is crucial according to traditions.

“At one point, these Indigenous ancestors were placed there for a reason, with ceremony. There’s no reason to move them.”

Charlene Debassige first heard about the discovery on the news, and spent the night tossing and turning. She’s part Cree and part Ojibwe, and the burial site is just a few blocks from her home.

“It really bothered me. I kept thinking, ‘These are our relatives here.’” So she and her cousin Danielle Migwans decided to organize a ceremony.

They expected a small group of friends and family to attend. But word spread quickly, including among neighbours in Riverdale. Staff at the school also offered to help.

On Monday evening, about 200 people – the majority of them non-Indigenous – stood gathered on the sidewalk. Philip Cote, an artist and historian who is a member of Moose Deer Point First Nation, lit a sacred fire in honour of the dead and explained the traditions to the crowd.

For a death feast – an offering and a sign of respect to the ancestors – teachers from the school brought sandwiches made from beans and bologna, in lieu of the traditional deer or moose stew.

“I think it’s an awakening,” Mr. Cote said, noting a greater willingness by non-Indigenous people to understand Indigenous history – especially after the discoveries in recent years of suspected unmarked graves of Indigenous children.

Still, plenty of evidence of lingering pain remains.

The day after Monday’s ceremony, Ms. Migwans heard rumours about further disruptions at the site. (Mr. Olson, the anthropologist with the province, said that no more digging has taken place.)

That’s when Indigenous community members started their vigil and built a second sacred fire. Some set up tents, where they say they’ll stay until they’re sure that the remains are properly cared for.

“The sacred fire is there until the job is done,” said Allan Zachariah of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte. “If it’s six months, we’ll be here for six months.”

He referred to the long history of Indigenous remains dug up by explorers and archeologists then moved to museums for display – institutions that have only just begun the work of repatriating those remains.

The 63-year-old Mr. Cote echoed some of his concerns. “You’re talking to a man who ... has experienced racism probably daily in this country.”

Despite this, he said, he felt a sense of extraordinary unity at the ceremony Monday evening. Looking around the crowd at the many non-Indigenous neighbours braving the cold to learn from him moved him to tears, he said.

“For that moment, that night, it all disappeared,” he said. “That was really nice.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misidentified Melvin Pine as Mohawk. He is, in fact, Ojibwe. (Jan. 15, 2024) In an earlier version of this article, an inaccurate term was used to describe suspected unmarked graves near residential school sites. This version has been updated.

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