November 18, 2018

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Looting of Métis Possessions Poses Barrier to Reconciliation

Looting of Métis Possessions Poses Barrier to Reconciliation

Photo: Library and Archives Canada

As gunfire erupted in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, Métis leader Louis Riel held up his crucifix and fervently prayed for victory. Although the Métis were victorious at the Battle of Duck Lake, Canada ultimately crushed the Northwest Resistance. Looting of Métis possessions was widespread during the chaotic final days of the Resistance. Today, Riel’s crucifix, knife, and book of poetry, as well as several articles of Métis clothing are held in the RCMP Heritage Centre in Regina. The RCMP never adduced any evidence to legitimize their possession of these artifacts. Without such evidence, a reasonable observer would view the RCMP as profiting from the wartime theft of cultural and spiritual items. An argument that ‘to the victor belongs the spoils’ rings hollow in an era of reconciliation.

A crucifix, an artifact that belonged to Louis Riel, is shown on display at the RCMP Heritage Centre museum in Regina. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A concerted effort by Métis activists as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies convinced Canada to agree to return these artifacts to the Métis people. Although this is a significant step towards reconciliation, it is fundamentally unjust for Canada to repatriate Indigenous artifacts in an ad hoc manner which relies on the advocacy of Indigenous peoples. Article 11 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the federal government has pledged to adopt, requires Canada to consult with Indigenous peoples regarding stolen cultural property and artifacts taken without consent of the original owners. Repatriation of Indigenous artifacts, if desired by the descendants of the original owners, is necessary.

A joint effort by the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and the Department of Canadian Heritage must address the issue of Indigenous artifacts through four steps. First, Indigenous artifacts located in museums across Canada must be identified. Second, the descendants of the original owners must be consulted in order to determine the appropriate resting place for these artifacts. Third, if requested, artifacts must be repatriated to relevant Indigenous communities. Finally, Canada must provide for the long-term security of repatriated artifacts. Canada bears direct responsibility for the theft of Indigenous artifacts by military forces. Canada also bears responsibility for the colonial disruption of Indigenous societies which allowed culturally important items to be stolen. Accordingly, it is incumbent on Canada to proactively address the issue of Indigenous artifacts held in Canadian museums.

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About The Author

Jesse Donovan

Jesse Donovan is a Métis student at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. Jesse has an undergraduate degree in Indigenous studies from the University of Toronto and has worked for several Métis organizations across the country. Jesse is an advocate for the repatriation of Indigenous land and artifacts.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael

    The RCMP and the Canadian government should act immediately to return the native artifacts to the true owners and in this case, the spoils should not remain with the victors. They do not deserve them. They lied and belittled the native people to cheat them out of their land and resources and labelled us savages. The keepers of the land were pushed aside because of the greed of the settlers and their governments. (including their Kings and Queens who claimed their right to all discovered land inhabited or not).

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