Dr. Peggy J. Blair writes about the legalities of burial ground protection

The Non-Protection Of Canadian Aboriginal Heritage (Burial Sites And Artifacts) by Dr. Peggy J. Blair

Dr. Peggy J. Blair (2005) gives and excellent outline of the history of how scientists have felt entitled to desecrate Indigenous peoples burial sites. Her article gives a legal overview in the Canadian context speaking about many sites which have been destroyed due to archaeology and development. This article was written for the Scow Institute: The Scow Institute is a non-partisan organization dedicated to addressing public misconceptions about issues relating to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal rights. For more information, please visit our website at http://www.scowinstitute.ca.


“For several centuries, Western scientists have disinterred Aboriginal human remains and cultural items for collection and study. Often, the everyday and sacred objects found in burial grounds have been retained in private collections and museums rather than being returned to or re-buried in their community of origin. Under current federal legislation, unless those holding such items agree to return them voluntarily, little can be done.” (1)

“To Aboriginal peoples, burial grounds are not archaeological sites, and human bones are neither artifacts to be displayed in museums, nor scientific resources to be mined; the remains of ancient ancestors are to be accorded proper respect. For many Aboriginal cultures, the belief that a spiritual ‘essence’ remains bound to the body after death means that remains should never be disturbed. The Anishnabe of south-western Ontario traditionally believed that humans consisted of three parts – a corporeal body that decayed and disappeared after death, a soul that traveled to the land of the souls, and a shadow spirit that roamed around the earth but generally remained with the grave. According to these beliefs, a disturbance of the grave disturbs the shadow spirit.” (3)

“In Ontario, both the Cemeteries Act and the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act require that once an ‘unapproved Aboriginal cemetery’ is discovered, negotiations must take place resulting in a site disposition agreement.27 Section 68 of the Ontario Cemeteries Act prohibits the disturbance of a ‘burial site or artifacts associated with the human remains’ except on the instruction of the coroner or under one of these agreements.” (6)

“Litigation to prevent development has generally been unsuccessful. For some Aboriginal peoples, their inability to protect burial sites has resulted in blockades and occupations, even violence. As the Royal Commission has pointed out, Aboriginal groups often have little influence in deciding priorities for development or preservation. As the commission concluded, ‘[a]ll too often, Aboriginal peoples’ desire or need for access to traditional sites for traditional activities has led to conflict with officials’.41 A new ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada calls on provincial governments as well as the federal government to consult with Aboriginal peoples and to accommodate their rights. The impact of this direction from the Supreme Court on Aboriginal burial grounds is still not known.” (10)

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