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As reconciliation with Indigenous peoples grinds ahead, Canadian archeologists are motivated and well placed to show a way forward

The Mohawk Institute has become an archeological site that Paul Racher is helping excavate pro bono for the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont.

He's a broad-shouldered 6 foot 2, but Paul Racher walks softly and with an almost apologetic stoop through the grounds of an old residential school. It's the gait of someone visiting a cemetery or a famous battlefield.

The Mohawk Institute was a bit of both during the almost 150 years it operated here, until it finally closed in 1970. Now, like many battlefields and burial grounds, it has become an archeological site. Mr. Racher is part of a team excavating it pro bono for the Woodland Cultural Centre, the Indigenous-run organization that has preserved the school for educational purposes.

The dig is a "reconciliation project," Mr. Racher says, undertaken first by his own firm, Archaeological Research Associates, and then by the Ontario Archaeological Society (OAS) as part of the profession's attempt, during Canada's sesquicentennial, to bring its practices in line with the values and interests of the people whose heritage they dig up.

At the institute, Mr. Racher and his colleagues uncovered detritus from the residential school – old crockery, marbles, jacks – and then below that, evidence of habitation before contact with Europeans, including an arrowhead.

"So you had a happy Indigenous occupation, then a very sad one," Mr. Racher says.

Schools such as the Mush Hole – so nicknamed for the oatmeal it served students with deadening regularity – have become synonymous with the abuse of Indigenous Canadians through government policies. But studying the building itself, still grimly imposing after all these years, makes the misery of the place vivid.

Schools such as the Mohawk Institute have become synonymous with the abuse of Indigenous Canadians through government policies.

Mr. Racher, 51, points out messages scratched into the red brick of the school's outbuildings: "FOWLER MINNIE + GAW GAW WAS HERE, MARCH 1952," "FRANK HILL SERVED TIME HERE," "HELP ME PLEASE."

He and Paula Whitlow, the executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre, go through the hundreds of objects found in the walls of the third-floor dormitory during recent renovations: comic books, Valentine's Day cards, cigarettes, lots of food. Students at the institute "were always cold and always hungry," Ms. Whitlow says.

This excavation is part of the Save the Evidence campaign to preserve the remnants of one of the country's few intact residential school buildings. Mr. Racher and his colleagues are undertaking it in close collaboration with the cultural centre and on their behalf.

That simple goal is a departure for a profession that has long been dominated by disinterested academics or private contractors working for developers. But as reconciliation with Indigenous peoples grinds ahead, Canadian archeologists are motivated and well placed to show a way forward.

"We're trying to do things that will help the Indigenous communities," Mr. Racher says.

The profession has long been involved in saving the evidence of that inconvenient Canadian truth: that Indigenous people were here first. But it has often done so clumsily and even brutally, mishandling and appropriating artifacts and disturbing ancestral remains. Now, many archeologists are determined to mend their ways.

The excavation is part of the Save the Evidence campaign to preserve the remnants of one of the country’s few intact residential school buildings.

"Anyone who doesn't think control of Indigenous heritage is going to pass to Indigenous peoples is smoking something," Mr. Racher says. "The only weird thing to me is how long it took for us to figure that out."

In November, at a Best Western hotel 10 minutes from the Mohawk Institute site, the OAS held its annual symposium. The gathering had a daunting theme: "From Truth to Reconciliation: Redefining Archaeology in Ontario."

Most Canadians would struggle to define Canadian archeology, let alone redefine it. The field tends to be more closely associated in the public mind with the sites of classical antiquity such as Rome and Egypt. "When I first tell someone I'm an archeologist, they say, 'We have archeology here? No way!' " Mr. Racher says. "They're used to the Greeks, Italians, the U.K. It's rare you run into someone who thinks … anything important could have happened here."

Of course, important things did happen in Canada before European colonists arrived. But the colonists were so successful in extinguishing the living cultures they encountered that by the late 19 th century, archeology, as opposed to anthropology, had become a viable way to study the country's first peoples.

The first full-time professional Canadian archeologist was an enterprising blacksmith and bookseller named David Boyle, who in the 1880s began crudely excavating sites across Southern Ontario.

Some Indigenous peoples valued his work for preserving their material culture, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The Mohawk of Six Nations near Brantford, Ont., actually adopted Boyle and bestowed upon him the name "ambassador."

A pair of shoes found hidden in the walls of the third floor of the Mohawk Institute.

Still, the title of the paper he produced about his time among the Six Nations – "On the paganism of the civilized Iroquois of Ontario" – suggests how condescending and Victorian his sensibility remained. The tension Boyle embodied, between the respectful preservation and the arrogant misconstrual of Indigenous heritage, would define the next century of Canadian archeology.

For decades, the field remained the preserve of amateurs and scholars, "a small thing practised by a few people mostly out of university departments," Mr. Racher says. Only in the construction boom after the Second World War did that begin to change, as suburban tracts sprouted across North America and stories spread of Indigenous artifacts being "bulldozed away."

Anxiety about what was being lost helped spur stricter regulations around development and gave rise to what was virtually a new profession: the archeological consultant.

Even as the industry boomed, its attitude toward Indigenous cultures remained tainted by prejudice and indifference. When Mr. Racher began practising archeology in the 1980s, the field was shot through with a rough-and-ready "pith helmet" approach that often led to the manhandling and effective confiscation of sacred artifacts.

"The theory used to be 'Just shut up and shovel,' " said Gord Peters, deputy grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, which works to defend treaty rights.

It was an absurd but telling approach. In the eyes of many Indigenous groups, much of the land that now makes up Canada was never properly ceded. Settlers and their descendants, of course, largely take a different view.

The dig is a ‘reconciliation project,’ Paul Racher says.

"This is our land … we have underlying title that was never extinguished," Mr. Peters said. "[But] for some reason it's easy to dig up our ancestors and put them in museums and things."

Mr. Racher's own upbringing provided plenty of evidence for the dispossession of Indigenous people that underlies so much of his profession. His grandparents' farm in Petrolia, Ont., bought on the cheap in the 1950s, was on a swath of 580,000 acres purchased by the Crown in 1822 from the Chippewa Nation as part of Treaty 25. In exchange the Chippewas got a pittance. As Mr. Racher wrote in a presentation last year, "this is why, by 128 years later, that same land (cleared, 'improved' and with a house on it) was cheap enough that an uneducated farm labourer could afford to buy it and raise his six children there." It's what launched the Rachers into the middle class.

Archeology was one way to fight back against this kind of dispossession. For all their blind spots, those who work in the field tend to have a keener appreciation of the richness of Indigenous heritage than most Canadians do.

Beginning in the early 2000s, meanwhile, a series of court decisions reaffirmed the Crown's duty to consult with and accommodate Indigenous peoples in the course of development, leading to a boom in archeological consulting, with professionals such as Mr. Racher increasingly called on to establish the heritage value of sites across the country.

That produced a bumper crop of contracts – Mr. Racher, who used to be a part-time Volkswagen mechanic and furnace installer, now has a staff of dozens – but it also created a sea change in the way archeologists thought about their relationship with Indigenous people.

Perhaps nowhere in Ontario was that change more evident than in the Thonnakona reburial. In the mid-2000s, negotiations began for the reinterment of the Kleinburg Ossuary, a traditional group burial ground containing Huron-Wendat remains excavated in 1970 and stored over the following decades in archives at the University of Toronto, where the bones were studied by anthropology students.

For all the progress the archeological field has made, Paul Racher feels there’s still a long way to go.

"It was not respectful to the descendant groups," said Dena Doroszenko, an archeologist with the Ontario Heritage Trust, which led the reburial process from the archeological side. "No one would want their ancestors to be excavated and used as fodder for scientific inquiry."

In 2013, after long negotiations, the remains from several similar ossuaries were reburied on a specially chosen site in the Toronto suburb of Vaughan. The Huron-Wendat Nation specified an elaborate ritual process for the reinterment, and it fell to Ms. Doroszenko to provide logistics.

In accordance with Huron-Wendat spiritual practice, the movers transporting the remains from U of T to the reburial site were not allowed to speak to each other. A First Nations representative was on hand to offer prayers throughout the move. The Ontario Heritage Trust provided a bushel of corn as a gift to the ancestors. All non-Indigenous people were barred from the reburial ceremony, except for the backhoe operator filling in the burial trench, who underwent a purification process and had prayers said for his backhoe. It was all a long way from "shut up and shovel."

For all the progress the field has made, Mr. Racher feels there's still a long way to go. One of the most pernicious ongoing problems in Canadian archeology is what happens to artifacts uncovered by private archeologists. Some museums have ceded to pressure and begun the long process of repatriating parts of their Indigenous collections, but small archeological consultants collectively hold troves of artifacts they have excavated, often haphazardly.

"As a condition of [our] licence we're required to curate them into perpetuity, but that could mean anything," Mr. Racher says. "Let's just say what happens to the artifacts in those collections is not well regulated."

"We hear stories of archeologists having boxes and boxes of artifacts in their basements," said Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. "Those things need to be gathered and stored somewhere."

The colonists were so successful in extinguishing the living cultures they encountered that by the late 19th century, archeology had become a viable way to study the country’s first peoples.

Mr. Racher also believes provincial rules should be stricter when it comes to consulting local Indigenous groups. Currently, it's just three-quarters of the way through a site assessment.

What's more, even when archeologists are committed to consulting with First Nations, reserve governments often simply don't have the money to respond.

"What's engagement if on one side you have planners and developers and lawyers and on the other side there's nobody?" Mr. Racher said.

Many archeologists are acutely aware of the fraught nature of their work. Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mr. Racher worked to reform the profession from within over the course of his two-year term as OAS president, which ends Jan. 20. In November, at the group's symposium, he succeeded in amending the OAS constitution and statement of ethical principles to acknowledge the "privilege" of working with the cultural property of Indigenous groups and to urge members to make "every reasonable effort" to consult with First Nations about the handling of Indigenous artifacts. The motions passed overwhelmingly.

"It isn't really obligating us to too much, but it is acknowledging a truth," Mr. Racher said.

While the profession is still overwhelmingly white, some Indigenous groups are starting to take the initiative in the field. The OAS has been working with the Chippewas of the Thames to teach them how to do archeological monitoring of their lands and even designed a course on the subject for other nations to use. Chief Laforme, meanwhile, says his band government is developing its own archeological standards, which will have a lower-than-usual threshold for what counts as archeologically significant.

For all their blind spots, those who work in the archeological field tend to have a keener appreciation of the richness of Indigenous heritage than most Canadians do.

"In the future of archeology our voices need to be heard – and frankly we need to lead these discussions," Chief Laforme said. "How you come across and deal with our ancestors is a big part of reconciliation."

Mr. Racher agrees. But he doesn't stint in describing how big a task that will be.

"The profession is still colonial to its roots," he says. "You have a bunch of archeologists who are almost universally from the settler society, we get our licences from the Crown … we dig this stuff up without their permission.

"Permission," he adds, "might come with strings."

As the country excavates its past with a newly critical eye, a century and a half after its founding, the profession that makes digging beneath the surface of Canada its business was always going to find itself encumbered by new strings. Mr. Racher welcomes the change.

"You like to feel that you'll be on the right side of history on this stuff," he says.