How Indigenous ‘liaisons’ are working to protect their history from developers

First Nations monitors work alongside archeologists on digs — but some feel that the process is keeping them on the sidelines
By Charnel Anderson - Published on September 26, 2018
Archeologist Lawrence Jackson gives a lesson to prospective First Nation field liaisons, who took a summer course organized by Curve Lake First Nation. (Julie Kapyrka)

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When developers in Ontario propose new infrastructure projects, their plans are subject to an environmental assessment, a process that includes an evaluation of the site’s potential archeological significance. Construction firms or government agencies that oversee such projects are encouraged to consult Indigenous communities — it has become standard practice to hire First Nations liaisons, also known as monitors, to work alongside archeological firms and help ensure that Indigenous remains and artifacts are protected.

Some First Nations communities, though, believe they don’t have enough input in the process. At least three First Nations in Ontario — Curve Lake, the Mississaugas of the New Credit, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy — have published guidelines of their own. These call for better training for liaisons and for Indigenous communities to be involved earlier in the process. They also call for the liaisons to have greater authority at archeological sites.

Archeological site assessments in Ontario go through, at most, four stages. Current guidelines require archeologists to consult Indigenous communities at Stage 3, which involves digging one-metre-squared holes and assessing the potential cultural value of a site.

That’s too late, some First Nations argue, because by that stage, says Michael Henry, an archeologist and partner at AMICK Consultants Limited, “every decision that matters has been made.”

Julie Kapyrka, who is the lands and resources consultation coordinator at Curve Lake First Nation and has worked as a liaison, wants Indigenous people to be involved at Stage 1, the initial research phase. She says archeologists rely heavily on written records, whereas Indigenous communities have used oral histories to pass information down through the generations. “We need to be engaged at Stage 1 because we have elders and knowledge-holders who may be aware of where burials are or where sites are that a licensed archeologist would have no clue about,” she says. “We can let you know where things are even before you put a shovel in the ground.”

Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation also want to be involved at Stage 1, arguing in its guidelines that only its people, not archeologists, “can determine if a property holds cultural heritage value or interest” to the community.

The First Nation released its guidelines in April. Mark LaForme, director of consultation and accommodation for the community, says they were “very well received” by archeologists — most of whom “have taken it upon themselves to implement them.” He adds that many archeologists who used to engage with the First Nation at Stage 3 or 4 now engage at Stage 2.

Virtually anyone can be a liaison, even if they have no knowledge of archeology. “I liken it to the Wild West,” Kapyrka says. There are a handful of unaccredited, archeologist-run liaison training programs in the province, and some archeologists provide training on an ad hoc basis. However, Kapyrka says, these programs tend not to include topics such as Indigenous burial practices and ceremonies. That’s why she facilitated a five-week liaison training program on behalf of Curve Lake this summer that combined cultural teachings with lessons on archeological theory and method.

Kapyrka hopes the program will reduce the disparity in knowledge and experience between liaisons and archeologists — something that can be a source of tension when relatively inexperienced First Nations liaisons try to direct veteran archeologists in the field. “It causes some big problems,” she says.

Henry appreciates the participation of liaisons and the perspectives they provide, but he wants to retain ultimate authority over the archeological activities on the site. “I don’t want people going off digging holes wherever they want,” he says. “Legally, I’m responsible for everything that happens to this archeological site while I’m here, so we’re not going to be doing any screwing around.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Julie Kapyrka's surname and mistakenly identified her as a liaison, a position she no longer holds. TVO.org regrets these errors.

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