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Does Canada need a repatriation law?

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


Today’s post is about the repatriation of Indigenous cultural artifacts that have been wrongfully taken or stolen from Indigenous communities, and displayed in museums or galleries.


Photo credit: https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/indigstudies/chapter/indigenous-artifacts/


Repatriation means returning something “to its place of origin,” giving it back “to the nation and the people that it came from,” or returning “precious belongings to their home communities.”[1]


Through history, many culturally significant Indigenous artifacts and Indigenous remains have been coerced or stolen from Indigenous communities, graves, and sacred sites, and have ended up in museums.[2] Museums themselves have been involved in the collection of Indigenous property, and have displayed these items while “sometimes misinterpreting or misrepresenting their use and meaning.”[3]


Repatriation of these artifacts is in line with Call to Action 67. It is a tangible act of reconciliation that attempts to address some of the harms caused by colonization.[4] It is important because it protects Indigenous traditional knowledge, and the items in question are often very historically and culturally significant. Colonization has stolen the knowledge from some Indigenous communities that these culturally significant items still exist, and the ability to proudly connect future generations to the importance of their traditional knowledge through these artifacts.


One issue hindering repatriation is a lack of funding for museums. Inadequate funding means that museums do not have the financial resources to return artifacts to their rightful owners, or the staff needed to determine which people or communities the artifacts belong to.[5]


Another big issue is that there is no binding legislation in Canada that requires museums or galleries to return cultural artifacts. This means that repatriation will not occur unless museums make it happen out of their own goodwill, or cooperate with Indigenous groups who have requested the return of their cultural artifacts.[6] Because Canadian institutions are not required by law to cooperate with repatriation efforts, their relationships with those requesting the return of their artifacts is unequal.[7] The inequality stems from the power imbalance between the institutions and the Indigenous groups requesting the return of their artifacts, because the institutions have all of the deciding power, and there is no law to support Indigenous communities’ requests. This is contrary to the process of reconciliation, and the goal of building relationships of trust and respect.


Other countries, including the United States, have created repatriation laws that force “institutions to comply if they want to keep receiving government money.”[8] The United States has had such legislation in place for over 30 years, which makes Canada’s failure to enact legislation disappointing and embarrassing.[9]


When working to repatriate artifacts in their possession, museums should consult with Indigenous communities. They should notify the specific communities of the cultural artifacts and Indigenous remains in their possession, and ask the communities what should be done with them.[10] Museums may hesitate to return cultural artifacts to the Indigenous communities that they belong to, because the communities don’t have the same type of facilities in which to keep and preserve the artifacts. However, as Dr. Kisha Supernant has succinctly expressed, “The whole point of repatriation is for Indigenous communities to have the right to decide what happens to their belongings and ancestors. The idea that everything must be preserved and curated is part of the settler colonial project.”[11] If Indigenous communities are not given a say in what happens to their cultural artifacts, reconciliation is not truly taking place.[12]


Justice occurs when cultural artifacts are returned to and reunited with the Indigenous groups they came from. Repatriation is imperative because it contributes to healing, increases connections with cultures where ties have been lost due to colonialism, and preserves and celebrates Indigenous traditional knowledge. All of these outcomes are steps towards reconciliation, which can be made possible by legislating the return of cultural artifacts to their rightful homes.


Until next time,

Team Reconcili-ACTION YEG


[1] “How one museum is repatriating Indigenous belongings” (15 June 2019), online: CBC <https://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/repatriation-bringing-ancestral-artifacts-and-remains-home-1.5172031/how-one-museum-is-repatriating-indigenous-belongings-1.5174410>. [2] “An Artifact of Colonialism: The Canadian Government’s Obligation to Assist Indigenous Repatriation Efforts” (31 March 2022), online: The McGill International Review <https://www.mironline.ca/an-artifact-of-colonialism-the-canadian-governments-obligation-to-assist-indigenous-repatriation-efforts/>. [3] UBC Museum of Anthropology, “Returning the Past: Repatriation of First Nations Cultural Property” (2008) at 3, online (pdf): <https://moa.ubc.ca/wp-content/uploads/TeachingKit-Repatriation.pdf>. [4] “Canada’s museums are slowly starting to return Indigenous artifacts” (22 June 2021), online: Maclean’s <https://www.macleans.ca/culture/canadas-museums-are-slowly-starting-to-return-indigenous-artifacts/>. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Supra note 2. [8] Supra note 4. [9] Ibid. [10] Ibid. [11] Dr. Kisha Supernant, “The whole point of repatriation is for Indigenous communities to have the right to decide what happens to their belongings and ancestors. The idea that everything must be preserved and curated is part of the settler colonial project.” (20 June 2022 at 19:28), online: Twitter <https://twitter.com/ArchaeoMapper/status/1539057601769459712?cxt=HHwWgMCqpYGv6tsqAAAA>. [12] Supra note 2.

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