The city has reached an informal deal with the First Nations group camped out on a supposed native burial mound in High Park. Unfortunately, Toronto's other First Nations historical sites haven't received the same consideration.[briefbreak]
In fact, that the city and the High Park First Nations group have reached a deal at all is pure coincidence. First Nations activists, who have been camped out on the park's BMX trail since Friday, insist the site is a 3,000-year-old First Nations cemetery, but City Hall disagrees.
"It's not a burial ground," said city spokesperson Margaret Dougherty. "We commissioned assessments from experts, and they determined that there is no evidence of any archeological material or human remains at that location."
Despite the gulf between how the city and the activists see the site, they agree that unauthorized BMX bikers should not be allowed to drastically reshape the land and destroy the natural habitat. The First Nations group will break camp today on the condition that they be allowed to assist in the rehabilitation of the site. Already city staff and activists are breaking down the ramps built by bikers, and the activists will attempt to rebuild the "circle within a circle" structure that they believe resembles the original burial ground.
According to Dougherty, cooperating with the activists isn't a sign the city has recognized their claims to the area. "We share a common goal to restore that particular site to its natural state," she said. "We invited [the First Nations activists] and any other community volunteers to restore the site.The space is ecologically significant, and we've reminded bikers that off road biking isn't allowed and we intend to enforce our bylaw."
That little archeological evidence has been found to support the idea that First Nations ancestors are buried in that section of the park doesn't mean it's not a grave site, according to Jon Johnson, an adjunct professor at York University. He notes that High Park is one of the few places in the city that hasn't been developed, and documented, undisturbed burial grounds have been found there.
Johnson, who leads tours of Toronto's First Nations' sites for the Native Canadian Centre, says that in native cultures oral history is as important as scientific proof.
"People have a sense that because it's oral it's to be trusted less than writing," he said. "But it's not something that's made up willy-nilly. There's a whole community that keeps these oral histories and is responsible for keeping them accurate. It wouldn't be very easy for someone to make something up."
The city is littered with areas of significance for Canada's native people. Two large 17th Century villages are believed to have existed where Toronto now stands, one a Seneca and Mississauga settlement near Baby Point, and a second Seneca town south of Rouge Park. A sizeable cemetery near Yonge and Bloor used to house both native and non-native bodies, but as development encroached on it, Johnson says the non-native remains were transferred to Mount Pleasant Cemetery in 1855 and the native graves were simply destroyed.
The Taiaiakon Historical Preservation Society's Rastia' ta 'non:ha (also known as David Redwolf) was among those camped out on the High Park site. He said that First Nations sites are being desecrated all the time in Toronto, and while for now his organization's efforts are focused on archeologically-rich High Park (he says there are 57 burial mounds in the park alone), he hopes the successful restoration of this site will set a good example to other First Nation's groups.
"Once this site is taken care of in a good way, it will be a domino effect for all the other sites that are being desecrated," he said. "I think this will set the stage for more positive action. Too often the general public is used to us responding in a negative way. This isn't an occupation, it was never intended to be an occupation."
On Saturday at noon, the activists will hold a ceremony with members of the First Nations community to sanctify the site and continue work on dismantling the BMX trails. Redwolf said all are welcome.