Canadian museums are concerned that a private-member’s bill being debated in Parliament would give Indigenous people the right to reclaim artifacts that are central components of public collections.
But Bill Casey, the Liberal MP from Nova Scotia who drafted to bill, says that is not the intent of his proposed legislation. What he wants, he said in a recent interview, is for the government to create a “template” for repatriating objects that are precious to First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, when such a transfer is mutually desirable.
“It’s mostly to highlight the issues,” Mr. Casey said of Bill C-391, which is expected to pass in the House of Commons on second reading, possibly in the fall, although a Commons committee could significantly amend it.
Mr. Casey said his bill would not require any object to be repatriated. “It’s a request for the government to have a strategy, with the co-operation of Indigenous parties, to have available a process to bring artifacts back.”
Specifically, the bill calls upon the Minister of Canadian Heritage to develop and implement a comprehensive national strategy to promote and support the return of aboriginal cultural property, wherever situated, to the aboriginal peoples of Canada.
That worries Canadian museums.
“We have wondered, is everything suddenly going to have to be returned,” said John McAvity, the executive director of the Canadian Museums Association, who will meet with Mr. Casey next week to discuss the bill. “ Where is the line? What are the priority items?
“We had never been consulted or advised and it could have a significant impact on museums,” he said.
Between 1988 and 1992, a task force sponsored by the museums association and the Assembly of First Nations determined protocols for repatriating human remains and ceremonial objects to Indigenous communities that deliberately did not entail legislation, he said. “We made it a moral imperative for the return of things.”
That said, Mr. McAvity added, museums are not opposed to Mr. Casey’s legislation and believe some positive aspects could be built into it – such as legal protection for museums that accidentally return items to the wrong communities. But that would require amendments.
The Conservatives, who have indicated that they will support the bill on second reading, also say it needs to be changed. Peter Van Loan, the Tories’ critic for Canadian Heritage, told the House of Commons he and his colleagues see three or four revisions that must be made.
The law, Mr. Van Loan said, must protect the legitimate sale of Indigenous art, acknowledge the public interest in having Indigenous artifacts on display and ensure that communities that repossess items have the ability to care for them. He also said it should state that “this repatriation policy should only apply to artifacts that individuals are no longer interested in possessing or that museums are going to deaccession.”
Mr. Casey decided to draft the bill after a visit to The Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre, which showcases Mi’kmaq art and history. The centre has a picture of an intricately beaded robe called a regalia that was created by an unknown Mi’kmaq woman and sold in the 1850s to Samuel Huyghue, a British army officer who collected Indigenous artifacts.
Mr. Huyghue took the regalia to Britain and then to Australia, and when he died in 1891, he willed his collection to a museum in Melbourne. The regalia is still in that museum, in a drawer where it is not on display to the public. And the heritage centre in Millbrook, N.S, has been trying to get it back.
“It’s in magnificent shape,” said Heather Stevens, the heritage centre’s operations supervisor. “To have this regalia back in our own possession would just be one step in being able to get a lot more of our artifacts repatriated back here where they belong.”
Ms. Stevens said she also hopes the Melbourne museum has information about the regalia that could identify the artist who created it. To repatriate it and “then have the descendants of the woman who made it come here and see something that she has made,” she said, “it would be something that would be over the moon for me.”
That could happen with or without Mr. Casey’s legislation, depending on the will of the Australians.
But Ms. Casey said the bill could aid in the return of other objects to Indigenous communities around the world. “We’ve already had reaction from other countries that are interested in helping us work out a plan for this,” he said, “because we have artifacts from other countries here and they want them repatriated too.”