'We feel terrible about it': Fredericton museum searches for missing Wolastoqi remains

Members of the York Sunbury Historical Society are searching for Wolastoqi remains entrusted to their care 86 years ago, but which have since gone missing.

The remains were exhumed from an archaeological site known as a Wolastoqey burial ground near Old Government House in Fredericton. They were given to the society in 1933 but records about what happened to them after that are spotty.

With so much focus on reconciliation across Canada in recent years, Melynda Jarratt, the executive director of the Fredericton Region Museum, said it’s time the society tries to find out where the remains ended up.  

The society needs to “work hand-in hand with our First Nations brothers and sisters to bring these Indigenous remains home,” she said. 

“At the very least try to get as close as we can to the truth of what really happened back in those days, because we feel terrible about it.”

Melynda Jarratt, executive director of the Fredericton Region Museum, said the society has known about the missing remains for sometime. But moves toward reconciliation have brought the search for the remains into the forefront. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Back in 1933 the society didn’t have a physical building to house artifacts, said Jarratt.

“They would take these artifacts and archival documents home when they didn’t have a place to put them.”

So it’s plausible the remains were taken to a board member’s home. But board members from that era have died and many families have moved on, said Jarratt. 

The museum is now going through old files, reaching out to people living at the homes where former board members once lived. They’re also soliciting tips from the public. 

Jodi Simkin, the director of cultural affairs and heritage for the Klahoose First Nation, says elders want to put a focus on repatriating human remains. (British Columbia Museums Association)

Other lost remains

The effort to find ancestral remains lost or stolen from Indigenous communities isn’t unique to New Brunswick.  

On the other side of the country, members of the Klahoose First Nation in British Columbia started The Journey Home project which aims to catalogue ancestral remains and artifacts that sit in museums across the world.

The community has lost about half its ancestral remains, said Jodi Simkin, the director of cultural affairs and heritage for the Klahoose First Nation. 

They even have an app in order to help facilitate that goal, where people can report that an artifact said to be from the community is in a particular museum, said Simkin.

While they are cataloging both artifacts and remains, for now they are only trying to repatriate human remains.

“We heard very clearly from elders in the community that there was a need to do an exhaustive search looking for ancestors before we could shift our attention to looking for artifacts missing from the community.”

‘A good thing’

Rok Paul, a Wolastoqi historian from St. Mary’s First Nation in New Brunswick said his people’s artifacts and remains were often treated as trinkets and curios, and were stolen and then given away without consideration to the culture.

He said he can’t speak for the community as a whole, but he thinks it’s “a good thing that they’re taking this on is to find out what happened to them and maybe they can find out what happened to all the rest of the things that disappeared way back when.”

Paul said he thinks reconciliation can come from the fact that, unlike in the past, these issues are seen as important and that the museum is trying to make things right.

The York Sunbury Historical Society lost track of the remains before they moved into the Fredericton Region Museum. (Jordan Gill/CBC)

Jarratt said in an effort to bring about that reconciliation, the historical society has to do all it can to try and find the missing remains. 

But the truth is, they may never succeed. 

“And if that is the case then we owe a huge apology to the [Wolastoqiyik] and we have to make reconciliation to them.”

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