Repatriation of Aboriginal Remains and Artifacts in Canada

Posted on September 13, 2010

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Last week I saw this Vancouver Sun article — Cultural treasures will be repatriated to B.C. first nation —  reporting on 300 Nisga artifacts (including masks, headdresses, rattles, blankets, and a totem pole) which will be returned to the B.C. tribe in a ceremony on September 15th. Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I kept waiting for the article to state the reason why they were being returned — political pressure? a lawsuit? public outcry? — but alas, nothing. It got me to wondering whether Canada has a legislative equivalent to the U.S.’s NAGPRA, which got me to asking around.

Bill Henderson, a Tortonto-based lawyer specializing in aboriginal law, was kind enough to point out some resources regarding the law in Canada pertaining to the repatriation of aboriginal remains and artifacts.

The general situation is described at this NPS website (scroll down to Canada) and an abbreviated version follows:

Canada has developed a policy of repatriation of cultural property to Canadian First Nations, though it has not passed legislation. Some Canadian museums also have voluntary repatriation policies…

A number of professional and museum organizations have issued ethics guidelines that advocate the repatriation of human remains and cultural items to indigenous communities both in and outside of Canada.  Individual museums have also issued repatriation policies that make explicit their commitment to assisting indigenous communities in reclaiming ancestral human remains and cultural items. [See the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology’s Repatriation Guidelines here, for example.]

[The website goes on to (1) describe a joint project of the Canadian Museum Association and the Assembly of First Nations to develop an ethical framework and strategies for aboriginal peoples and cultural institutions to work together, (2) cite to the 1996 Canadian Archaeological Association’s Statement of Principles for Ethical Conduct Pertaining to Aboriginal Peoples.]

Due at least in part to the lack of legislation protecting aboriginal sites, the standards are unevenly applied, as is indicated by the article First Nations want say in the preservation of important archaeological sites in Ontario, when compared with Batchewana Remains Return Home.

Mr. Henderson also referred me to the Ipperwash Inquiry of 2007. The report includes research papers and recommendations on cultural property with an emphasis on human remains.

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