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 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.