Unearthing Parliament Hill’s Indigenous remains

It is a widely-held belief in Algonquin communities that the mortar used to bind the bricks of the Parliament buildings contains sand taken from one of four confirmed Indigenous burial sites in the National Capital Region



Canada’s original inhabitants are all too familiar with being pushed aside. And while Canadians seem to vaguely understand Parliament Hill sits on the homeland of Algonquin peoples, institutional land acknowledgements seem to miss one horrifying and morbid detail about our legislative buildings.

Yes, Canadians tend to acknowledge that the land we are on was first inhabited by nations that were not respected. But no one seems to be acknowledging the most symbolically charged building in Canada may contain remains from Indigenous burial sites.

A 2015 archaeological study conducted by Stantec Consulting as part of a rehabilitation of Parliament’s Centre Block states that “a few pieces of pre-contact Aboriginal pottery” had been found on the Parliament grounds. Because many of the materials used to build the buildings originated from nearby sources, it is a widely-held belief in Algonquin communities that the mortar used to bind the bricks of the Parliament buildings contains sand taken from one of the four confirmed ancient Algonquin burial sites located in the National Capital Region. 

In the 1840s, approximately 20 Indigenous skeletons were excavated from a burial site across the river from the Parliament buildings near the current grounds of the Canadian Museum of History. The construction contract for the Parliament buildings was awarded in 1857.

“It’s a national embarrassment that the bones of Algonquin ancestors [could be] in the mortar of the Parliament Buildings,” says Lynn Gehl, an author and researcher who did much of her doctoral work in Algonquin land claims.

Gehl says no treaty was negotiated with the Algonquin nation. Parliament Hill sits on unceded land.

Rick Revelle, author of I Am Algonquin, a fictional trilogy based on the actual living conditions of Algonquin peoples in the 1300s pre-contact, says Algonquins are ancestrally attached to the National Capital Region. This includes Parliament Hill because of its proximity to Chaudiére Falls, a spiritual site where Anishinaabe and Omamiwinini Algonquins would come together, as they travelled constantly. There are approximately 11,000 Algonquins living in Canada today. 

“My ancestors are the original inhabitants, and this was their land before anyone else came,” Revelle says.

Public Services and Procurement Canada representative Rania Haddad confirms that during excavations in 1992 and 1997, fragments of Indigenous ceramic and a shell bead were found in already “disturbed soil” on Parliament Hill.

But she writes in an email response that “PSPC is unaware of any Indigenous artifacts being discovered on Parliament Hill during archaeological investigations of excavation work in undisturbed soil.”

“Because these items were recovered in disturbed soil, it is difficult to determine their original source,” she says.

Randy Boswell, a Carleton University journalism professor who has done extensive research and writing on Parliament Hill’s archeological excavations, says the government is showing “incredible near-sightedness” on Algonquin claims.

“It’s kind of silly to think that there should be all this incredible (archaeological) evidence available in a highly disturbed set, in an era when most of the people doing the disturbing were more or less oblivious to the significance of archeology.”

Boswell points out that “we have an array of archaeological sites in and around the central part of present day cities of Ottawa and Gatineau that demonstrate this was a long standing place of occupation, trade, travel, and gathering.”

The government is currently in the middle of a major rehabilitation of Parliament’s Centre Block. Excavation has yet to begin. Revelle says now would be the perfect time to analyze whether or not the buildings contain the remains of Algonquins.

“If there is bone matter in it, the right thing to do is put it back to the soil, and back to where it was,” he says.

Heather Majaury, an Algonquin theatre artist and public educator from Kitchener, Ontario, believes the government has a responsibility to determine to what extent their may be remains present on Parliament Hill.

“There should be excavations and there needs to be consultation with all of the Algonquin communities… you can’t just go digging up graves,” she says.

So why are so few Canadians aware of the archaeological evidence suggesting there was once an Indigenous presence on Parliament Hill?

“It may take more formal efforts to spread the story,” says Boswell. “It does get more complicated in a place like Parliament Hill because of its symbolic significance.”

Gehl argues that Canada has a way of colonizing its own citizens through schools, media and how history is taught and learned.

“We’re very emotional about this country that we love, but that’s how we get manipulated,” Gehl says. “Instead of listening to us, [non-Indigenous Canadians] kind of run away because they want to love Canada. The Creator gave us the best gift, and it’s our minds. And so often we’re duped by our hearts.”

Revelle says there’s simply a double standard.

“What would happen if someone went to… a huge cemetery where a lot of famous people are buried, and the Natives went in there and started digging up the soil to use to make a meeting house?”

The Canadian federal government’s tendency to acknowledge their institutional presence on Indigenous land seems to wipe their conscious clean of sins. But Majaury speculates that there are political consequences that would come from the government confirming and publishing evidence that the Parliament buildings may contain the remains of Indigenous peoples.

“It’s about the reputation of Canada… it kind of just blows apart the entire Canadian myth,” she says.

Gehl says acknowledgement from the government is not enough. The reality of these legislative buildings poses a great moral dilemma that can’t be ignored. The least non-Indigenous Canadians can do is come to terms with Canada’s violent history, and its contemporary implications.

“We have to decolonize our minds and our hearts,” Gehl says.

Lauren Stokes is a journalism and political science student at Carleton University.

@nowtoronto

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