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Globe and Mail: Archeology and reconciliation
Eric Andres-Gee | January 28, 2018

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Excavating Canada's past with a newly critical eye

From Issue No. 266 | February 12, 2018

Mohawk Institute, Brantford

He's a broad-shouldered 6 foot 2, but Paul Racher walks softly and with an almost apologetic stoop through the grounds of an old residential school. It's the gait of someone visiting a cemetery or a famous battlefield.

The Mohawk Institute was a bit of both during the almost 150 years it operated here, until it finally closed in 1970. Now, like many battlefields and burial grounds, it has become an archeological site. Mr. Racher is part of a team excavating it pro bono for the Woodland Cultural Centre, the Indigenous-run organization that has preserved the school for educational purposes.

The dig is a "reconciliation project," Mr. Racher says, undertaken first by his own firm, Archaeological Research Associates, and then by the Ontario Archaeological Society (OAS) as part of the profession's attempt, during Canada's sesquicentennial, to bring its practices in line with the values and interests of the people whose heritage they dig up.

At the institute, Mr. Racher and his colleagues uncovered detritus from the residential school  old crockery, marbles, jacks  and then below that, evidence of habitation before contact with Europeans, including an arrowhead.

"So you had a happy Indigenous occupation, then a very sad one," Mr. Racher says.

Schools such as the Mush Hole  so nicknamed for the oatmeal it served students with deadening regularity  have become synonymous with the abuse of Indigenous Canadians through government policies. But studying the building itself, still grimly imposing after all these years, makes the misery of the place vivid.
Schools such as the Mohawk Institute have become synonymous with the abuse of Indigenous Canadians through government policies.

Schools such as the Mohawk Institute have become synonymous with the abuse of Indigenous Canadians through government policies.

Mr. Racher, 51, points out messages scratched into the red brick of the school's outbuildings: "FOWLER MINNIE + GAW GAW WAS HERE, MARCH 1952," "FRANK HILL SERVED TIME HERE," "HELP ME PLEASE."

He and Paula Whitlow, the executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre, go through the hundreds of objects found in the walls of the third-floor dormitory during recent renovations: comic books, Valentine's Day cards, cigarettes, lots of food. Students at the institute "were always cold and always hungry," Ms. Whitlow says.

This excavation is part of the Save the Evidence campaign to preserve the remnants of one of the country's few intact residential school buildings. Mr. Racher and his colleagues are undertaking it in close collaboration with the cultural centre and on their behalf.

That simple goal is a departure for a profession that has long been dominated by disinterested academics or private contractors working for developers. But as reconciliation with Indigenous peoples grinds ahead, Canadian archeologists are motivated and well placed to show a way forward.

"We're trying to do things that will help the Indigenous communities," Mr. Racher says.

The profession has long been involved in saving the evidence of that inconvenient Canadian truth: that Indigenous people were here first. But it has often done so clumsily and even brutally, mishandling and appropriating artifacts and disturbing ancestral remains. Now, many archeologists are determined to mend their ways.
The excavation is part of the Save the Evidence campaign to preserve the remnants of one of the countrys few intact residential school buildings.

The excavation is part of the Save the Evidence campaign to preserve the remnants of one of the countrys few intact residential school buildings.

"Anyone who doesn't think control of Indigenous heritage is going to pass to Indigenous peoples is smoking something," Mr. Racher says. "The only weird thing to me is how long it took for us to figure that out."

In November, at a Best Western hotel 10 minutes from the Mohawk Institute site, the OAS held its annual symposium. The gathering had a daunting theme: "From Truth to Reconciliation: Redefining Archaeology in Ontario."

Most Canadians would struggle to define Canadian archeology, let alone redefine it. The field tends to be more closely associated in the public mind with the sites of classical antiquity such as Rome and Egypt. "When I first tell someone I'm an archeologist, they say, 'We have archeology here? No way!' " Mr. Racher says. "They're used to the Greeks, Italians, the U.K. It's rare you run into someone who thinks & anything important could have happened here."

Of course, important things did happen in Canada before European colonists arrived. But the colonists were so successful in extinguishing the living cultures they encountered that by the late 19 th century, archeology, as opposed to anthropology, had become a viable way to study the country's first peoples.

The first full-time professional Canadian archeologist was an enterprising blacksmith and bookseller named David Boyle, who in the 1880s began crudely excavating sites across Southern Ontario.

Some Indigenous peoples valued his work for preserving their material culture, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The Mohawk of Six Nations near Brantford, Ont., actually adopted Boyle and bestowed upon him the name "ambassador."
A pair of shoes found hidden in the walls of the third floor of the Mohawk Institute.

Still, the title of the paper he produced about his time among the Six Nations  "On the paganism of the civilized Iroquois of Ontario"  suggests how condescending and Victorian his sensibility remained. The tension Boyle embodied, between the respectful preservation and the arrogant misconstrual of Indigenous heritage, would define the next century of Canadian archeology.

For decades, the field remained the preserve of amateurs and scholars, "a small thing practised by a few people mostly out of university departments," Mr. Racher says. Only in the construction boom after the Second World War did that begin to change, as suburban tracts sprouted across North America and stories spread of Indigenous artifacts being "bulldozed away."

Anxiety about what was being lost helped spur stricter regulations around development and gave rise to what was virtually a new profession: the archeological consultant.

Even as the industry boomed, its attitude toward Indigenous cultures remained tainted by prejudice and indifference. When Mr. Racher began practising archeology in the 1980s, the field was shot through with a rough-and-ready "pith helmet" approach that often led to the manhandling and effective confiscation of sacred artifacts.

"The theory used to be 'Just shut up and shovel,' " said Gord Peters, deputy grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, which works to defend treaty rights.

It was an absurd but telling approach. In the eyes of many Indigenous groups, much of the land that now makes up Canada was never properly ceded. Settlers and their descendants, of course, largely take a different view.
The dig is a 'reconciliation project,' Paul Racher says.

The dig is a reconciliation project, Paul Racher says.

"This is our land & we have underlying title that was never extinguished," Mr. Peters said. "[But] for some reason it's easy to dig up our ancestors and put them in museums and things."

Mr. Racher's own upbringing provided plenty of evidence for the dispossession of Indigenous people that underlies so much of his profession. His grandparents' farm in Petrolia, Ont., bought on the cheap in the 1950s, was on a swath of 580,000 acres purchased by the Crown in 1822 from the Chippewa Nation as part of Treaty 25. In exchange the Chippewas got a pittance. As Mr. Racher wrote in a presentation last year, "this is why, by 128 years later, that same land (cleared, 'improved' and with a house on it) was cheap enough that an uneducated farm labourer could afford to buy it and raise his six children there." It's what launched the Rachers into the middle class.

Archeology was one way to fight back against this kind of dispossession. For all their blind spots, those who work in the field tend to have a keener appreciation of the richness of Indigenous heritage than most Canadians do.

Beginning in the early 2000s, meanwhile, a series of court decisions reaffirmed the Crown's duty to consult with and accommodate Indigenous peoples in the course of development, leading to a boom in archeological consulting, with professionals such as Mr. Racher increasingly called on to establish the heritage value of sites across the country.

That produced a bumper crop of contracts  Mr. Racher, who used to be a part-time Volkswagen mechanic and furnace installer, now has a staff of dozens  but it also created a sea change in the way archeologists thought about their relationship with Indigenous people.

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