A barrier at the edge of the site with a City of Toronto sign prohibiting entry, with a hand-written addition.
Earlier this week, we reported on a dispute over an area of High Park, used by BMX bikers for riding and claimed by others to be a First Nations burial site. Since publishing that post, we’ve been able to speak with Susan Hughes, an archaeologist in the City’s Heritage Preservation Services section. (We had tried to reach her several times prior to our first article with no success.) She told us unequivocally that the City has found no evidence of human remains in the mound—though they have looked.
In 2009, the City’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation division, in consultation with Heritage Preservation Services, commissioned Archaeological Services Inc., a consultancy, to conduct an assessment of the BMX mound, located in the southeast corner of the park. Parks was concerned about the soil disturbance that was being caused by the construction of dirt ramps for the bikes, and wanted to ensure that there was no possibility of artifacts being damaged or destroyed.
“It was a background study of the area,” says Hughes, “looking for what the probability is that these lands might have been used for various activities, what the nearest archaeological sites are, that kind of thing. And then they also did on-site testing. They did test pitting. They put a shovel in the ground. They screened the material, looking for evidence of human remains, as well as for evidence of pottery, projectile points, flakes—any evidence of human habitation or human use of the site.”
“As a result of that study, the recommendation came back that there’s no further concern, nothing was found whatsoever.” (That report was filed with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. It was never—and still isn’t—available online, or even in electronic format, to the best of our knowledge; we have a photocopy that we picked up from their office.)
“If something is found in the future the appropriate authorities have to be consulted and informed,” Hugues continues. “And that’s just a standard process.”
The City, she says, decided not to proceed with more invasive investigation methods on the basis of these findings.
Under contract to the City, Archaeological Services Inc. also conducted a broader survey of High Park. “It looked at whether these mounds resemble any other kind of burial mound complexes in parts of the United States and other parts of other jurisdictions, and they don’t,” says Hughes.
The Taiaiako’n Historical Preservation Society, and its director, a man who uses the name Rastia’ta’non:ha, allege that the mound is a First Nations burial ground. Rastia’ta’non:ha gave us (and a Toronto Star reporter) a tour of the mound on Monday, and later, at a nearby café, gave a PowerPoint presentation of evidence in support of his claim, which we attended. His evidence—which included constellation charts and pictures of what he claimed were fragments of religious relics and human bone recovered from the site—was inconclusive, and his conclusions were not independently verified (and we said so in Tuesday’s post). We’ve since learned that Rastia’ta’non:ha has a history of making these types of claims, and that Native groups have distanced themselves from him.
“I don’t understand or have any rationale for his claims in the park,” says Kris Nahrgang, elected chief of the Kawartha Nishnawbe First Nations of Burleigh Falls, a band of over 700 whose treaty territory includes the GTA. “Now, I know that people have looked at it. And nobody seems to think that there are mounds there.” He corrects himself: “Well, we know there are mounds, but we don’t believe they’re culturally significant mounds.”
David Donnelly, a lawyer who represents the Huron-Wendats of Ontario, had similar things to say.
“The interests of First Nations people are ordinarily represented by a band council or an elected representative council,” he tells us. “[Rastia’ta’non:ha], to my knowledge, does not represent any band or council. He has never produced authentication of representing any such federally recognized interest.”
This isn’t the first time Rastia’ta’non:ha has appeared in the press defending an alleged burial mound in the face of skepticism not only from bureaucrats, but also from native groups. Under another name, David Redwolf, he was the central figure in several 2004 newspaper articles about a group of five mounds in Hamilton’s Red Hill Valley, all of which, at that time, were in danger of being destroyed during the construction of the Red Hill Valley Parkway. (Several people who know Rastia’ta’non:ha confirmed to us that he has gone by the name David Redwolf; this is verified by at least one City-issued report [PDF]. The newspaper articles in question aren’t available via their publications’ archives online, but can be accessed through the Toronto Public Library’s online database by those with library cards.)
A study, conducted by Archaeological Services Inc.—the same company that would later investigate the High Park mounds (they’re a large consultancy, and handle many municipal contracts)—concluded weeks later that the mounds were composed of soil from the mid-twentieth century, possibly excavated during the construction of a nearby trunk sewer line. Redwolf is quoted in the Hamilton Spectator as calling this conclusion “totally ludicrous.” City officials didn’t agree, and neither did the Six Nations Confederacy Council, whose spokesperson told the Spectator that they were “satisfied” with the findings. The Red Hill Valley Parkway opened in 2007.
People familiar with Rastia’ta’non:ha’s activities say his activism has been ongoing for at least the past six or seven years.
We called Rastia’ta’non:ha Tuesday evening and asked him if he’d known about the 2009 study of the BMX mound. “Yup,” he answered. “I am aware of that. And again, we don’t agree with their assessments.” He said that the City had promised him a second opinion. We couldn’t confirm that claim.
He took issue with our characterization of his group’s ground studies of the mound as “inconclusive.” “I didn’t state that,” he said. “I said that Ron Williamson said that they were inconclusive and that we believe that they are conclusive.” (Ron Williamson is one of the principals of Archaeological Services Inc.)
The thing that makes a burial-mound claim difficult to refute is that doing so means providing convincing evidence of the absence of remains, a tricky thing to do given the needle-in-haystack nature of digging for archaeological relics. “The only way to know this for absolutely sure is to excavate. Really, the only way to know what is in that hill is to dig,” City archaeologist Hughes told us, referring to a second High Park mound that has been identified as sacred by Rastia’ta’non:ha’s group. “Any archaeology is destructive.” The City undertakes studies, and requires others to undertake studies, only when significant soil disturbance is happening, or might happen.
We asked Rastia’ta’non:ha what the City would have to do in order to establish evidence of absence for him—in other words convince him that there were no remains in the High Park mounds.
“Well we know that there is,” he replied. “They can’t convince us that because we know that there is.”
Before we could pose another question, he became irritated, accused of us taking sides, told us that he would no longer be answering our questions or inviting us to Taiaiaiko’n Historical Preservation Society events, and hung up.
Donnelly, the Huron-Wendat lawyer, stresses that First Nations people do have legitimate archaeological concerns in the Toronto area.
“We have been struggling for the past 10 years to protect the significant sites,” he says. “In the last 50 years in the GTA, 8,000 cultural heritage sites in the GTA have been destroyed. Two thousand of those could be deemed to be significant.”
There is no reason, at least for now, to think the High Park mound in question is among them.
Photo by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.