Planning for the past; investing in our common future
1. Withholding the Past
What is our local history? Is it an artefact sitting behind glass in a museum that is forgotten at the end of a school trip? Or a heritage farmhouse? Is it a deeply spiritual connection with the dead that guides the living? Is it a living process that unfolds, that we, consciously or not, shape and are part of? Or is it just another bureaucratic hurdle to clear in planning?
I’m writing about the importance of local history from the perspective of a person who, admittedly, doesn’t know much about it. I know that we inhabit a part of Huronia that bears evidence of the prehistoric life of its first aboriginal inhabitants; an area that is part of a story of migrations and markets, of early (if not first) contact between settlers and natives and of later trade relations, of military alliances and colonization processes. It is a deeply layered place that is rich in archaeological resources, both known and yet to be documented.
My lack of knowledge and I are in good company. Not only, I assume, by most other residents, but (albeit to an appreciably lesser extent) by local archaeologists and historians themselves, who lament the lack of local field research. We are on the eve of the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s first visit to Huronia in 1615 - an event that would change the course of history for both indigenous people and settlers - experts who are immersed in this past still don’t know exactly where he landed and the trails he used to traverse this land. Resources for understanding and documenting our past are scarce.
Yet, in Springwater, you may not realize it, but there has been a virtual flurry of archaeological activity in the past 8 years. As of October 2014, there had been no fewer than 28 archaeological assessments pertaining to the Midhurst Secondary Plan area alone, not counting multiple phases of investigation where spades dug into earth. We don’t know how many more are required, or of those completed, how many of these resulted in significant archaeological findings. Clearly archaeology and the documentation of local history is happening - it’s just not part of public consciousness, let alone the public record.
Partly this secrecy is because the archaeological review process is “discrete” - and for good reason. If the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport (MTCS) were to advertise the GPS coordinates of sites, this would bait every aspiring Indiana Jones artefact collector to try his or her luck. “Looting” of this nature would violate not only the integrity of sites, and disrupt efforts to capture an accurate historic record, but would harm those people who entrust planning authorities with the protection of ancestral sites and artefacts, including First Nations living a distance, such as the Huron/Wendat of Wendake, Quebec.
But the irony remains - a torch is being shone onto the artefacts of our shared past, but the public remains in the dark.
Fundamentally, the reason for the silence surrounding all of this research is that what we are witnessing in Midhurst is part of a wider phenomenon in Ontario: archaeology that is commercially practiced and driven by the needs of developers. The archaeological assessments I am referring to are required as a development approval condition for each proposed subdivision development under the Planning Act (1996), and their purpose is to determine the archaeological potential of the subject land where development is planned. No construction can begin unless the land is cleared of archaeological concern.
The only parties to this process are the developer, the registered cultural resource management company it hires to carry out the research, the Ontario MCTS that receives and archives the report, and Township planners. Any interested residents must file freedom of information applications to access heavily redacted reports. While, on rare occasion, archaeology has featured on the agenda for discussion, even the municipal Heritage Committee is not involved in the archaeological assessment process.
When it comes to understanding our past, I question whether this level of secrecy is beneficial. None of our local museums or historical and archaeological societies is benefiting from the knowledge being produced in the course of planning-related archaeology. For example, the general public will never know that the Coutts site - a Wendat village and ossuary c.1550AD - exists within the MSP area, and was recommended for protection over four years ago. It also will not know that consultation for this site has not yet started for various above-board yet still rather feeble reasons. Ooops.
There is actually a school of thought that advocates for enhanced preservation through public awareness and signposting of cultural and archaeological heritage sites – an approach that is supported, for example, by the local Huronia Chapter of the Ontario Archaeological Society. After all, what interest do people have in protecting a cultural asset they don’t even know is there? Whether or not this approach could be more suitable for this Township is a worthwhile discussion that should be had publicly.
Our local history may have many meanings to different individuals. Certainly, it means something entirely different to a developer or planner than it does to a community. One thing I think we would all agree upon though, the story of how we all came to be here connects us. It is a public good, and we have a right to know it, to preserve it, and to celebrate it in its entirety.
In the coming three issues, I will share why I have come to feel that it is also our duty to know our local history, the obligation this places for meaningful engagement of stakeholders, especially Aboriginal stakeholders, and I will discuss the mandate of the municipality to do so.
2. Honouring the Past
In the last issue I shared some surprising information. Springwater, or at least the Midhurst Secondary Plan area, is currently a hotbed of archaeology, but none of the knowledge being generated is made public. I explained why I find this practice of withholding knowledge about our past to be excessive and out-dated.
In this issue, I continue on the theme of local history. Specifically, I question whether we can really claim to understand it without coming to grips with what lies underfoot. My concern is that inadequate documentation and disclosure of information about the past distorts our shared cultural narrative and the symbols of this history that we choose to commemorate and celebrate.
The Springwater Heritage Committee is known provincially for being particularly active in designating buildings, and progressively, even a tree. It worked for over a decade to restore the tiny courthouse and jail in Hillsdale, located and commemorated a cemetery where Springwater’s first black settlers lay buried, and in 2012, designated a military supply route from the war of 1812. All are worthy endeavours that begin to add depth to our understanding of about our local past. However, knowing and celebrating some aspects of our heritage, but not others, affects the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we stand for; and as long as all the archaeological work that is taking place in the Township is secret, there is a significant piece of the story missing.
Focusing, as we currently are, on those aspects of our history that are, for the most part, above the ground and relatively easy to recognize and identify with, tends to be less complicated and expensive than unearthing the stories of the people who preceded our arrival on this land, but it also slants the narrative and perpetuates the invisibility of those First Nations who were here before us.
In contrast, developing a shared understanding of our local history that is inclusive and accurate can promote social cohesion. The process itself of discovering and piecing together the past provides an opportunity to strengthen relationships with Aboriginal peoples and to redress colonial abuses of power. So that if we were to attempt to develop a more comprehensive understanding of our local history through archaeology, it would require not just notification and consultation, but strong relationship and open dialogue with First Nations.
We’ve seen the effect of lack of consultation at its worst, in the desecration of Aboriginal heritage and burial sites that resulted in extreme social tension and violence in Ipperwash and Oka. But we’ve also seen positive examples of collaboration, such as the discovery of an ossuary during the expansion of the recreation centre in Midland, where a local elder was called from the outset of this site discovery to advise upon the process.
However, to be clear, what I’m advocating for goes beyond the protocol that is triggered when human remains are discovered by construction workers. More too than just publicly communicating the findings of local archaeological assessments, though that would be a good start. I’m talking about the pro-active management of our archaeological and cultural resources, through a decidedly more inclusive and public approach that helps us to understand and value the unique history of this Township.
Partly I believe this is a social responsibility. As non-Aboriginals who have, whether we realize it or not, benefited from violent and unjust colonial processes, we have a moral obligation to help steer history in a just direction. We can either seize the opportunity that archaeology presents to make our local Aboriginal history visible, enriching our relationships with First Nations as well as our understanding of the past, or we can live meekly by minimum standards.
As a person who grew up on Gill Road, and who has spent most of her adult life living abroad, this is what I have come to see: our country still struggles with an identity crisis, partly borne of the fact that we do not fully face up to our colonial past and its languishing effects. Effects that most of us have the luxury of not seeing. There is a lot we don’t yet know about the history of this Township. In my view, learning and talking about it would enrich us all.
3. Settling for Notification or Striving for Meaningful Engagement?
In the last issue I shared what I believe is a need to invest in learning about our distant, pre-settler past, and the moral duty to paint an accurate account of our local history. I began to suggest that the best way to achieve this is through a more inclusive and transparent process. I also suggested that where archaeology in Springwater is concerned, we are currently adhering, ingloriously, to minimum standards of Aboriginal consultation.
So far in archaeological review processes within the MSP area, the extent to which First Nations have been engaged appears to have been minimal. A Township response to an email enquiry stated that, while First Nations had been circulated notifications of planning application as well as notification of some archaeological assessments for their review, none had responded, and as a result, no consultation was triggered. In other words, no one seems to have tried very hard.
Why could this be? From the side of the Township administration, this is a development process, driven by the need to clear land of archaeological concern for development – it is not viewed as a relationship-building process. And as to the reasons for the non-response from Aboriginal nations contacted, I can only speculate. However, while I have even less understanding of band council governance than I do of my local history, it is probably safe to assume that competing priorities, including large portfolios of archaeological issues requiring relatively rapid and researched responses, combined with resource constraints, may all be contributing factors. Or, maybe it is just a test to see whether settler administrations are serious about initiating meaningful, action-oriented dialogue. Whatever the reason, it is difficult to find out when even those initiating archaeological processes apparently can’t be bothered to pick up a phone to find out what needs to be done to engage First Nations stakeholders on mutually acceptable terms.
It’s also unlikely that stalled attempts to initiate consultations with First Nations indicate that they don’t care. We know from recent experience that many among them care deeply. Take Springwater Park, considered the sacred headwaters of the Minesing Wetlands. When, in 2013, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources announced that it would be one of ten provincial parks to go into non-operational status, First Nations thought the writing was on the wall. From the moment they suspected the Park was up for the developer auction block, activists, led by women – the traditional guardians of water – became engaged. They established Camp Nibi, so-named after the uncompromised quality of its waters, and began to exercise their indigenous sovereignty over the land and water through occupation and ceremony. This went on deep into the winter months, until negotiations began between the Province and Beausoleil First Nation. To me, this story indicates nothing if not the high level of concern that First Nations hold for the stewardship of significant cultural and natural heritage resources in the area.
I don’t believe that failure of a Nation to respond to a notification of planning or archaeological assessment by a given deadline frees a Township of its duty to consult. Rather, I believe that our inherited privilege as a settler-nation obliges us to strive for meaningful engagement.
What would it mean to raise the bar of Aboriginal engagement in archaeology above minimum standards? In the context of development-related archaeology, it means early engagement - ensuring that when a significant discovery is suspected, Aboriginal groups are contacted from the outset.
Ontario guidelines (2011) stipulate that consulting archaeologists must, at minimum, engage Aboriginal communities in the third phase of archaeological assessments, when assessing the cultural heritage value or interest of an Aboriginal site, and when formulating a strategy to mitigate impacts of development on that site.
The same guidelines encourage meaningful engagement that strives to cultivate a long-term relationship – one that fosters mutual trust that goes beyond specific archaeological projects. The guidelines are specific in this respect: “Meaningful engagement goes beyond public notification (e.g., mailing a form letter or issuing a general public notice). It seeks to build a mutual understanding of issues, expectations, and opportunities for solution and partnership.”
Whatever the expectations are of “meaningful engagement,” I’m fairly certain they don’t involve a short and rigid time limit for response, such as the brief 18 day period for public comment on the parameters of the Midhurst Master Plan for the Springwater Class Environmental Assessment.
If there is any indicator of meaningful engagement, it ought to be that all parties to the discussion feel that they actually were “meaningfully” engaged, even if this means different things to different parties, as it inevitably will.
4. Planning for the Past
Archaeology does not have to fall under the exclusive domain of developers and planners. Knowledge of the past is not only a public good, but documenting and communicating it in an accurate and unbiased way is something of a settler-nation obligation. Consulting archaeologists (and ultimately, the state) are encouraged to meaningfully engage with Aboriginal stakeholders, and “meaningful” engagement is unlikely to impose narrow parameters and rigid deadlines. So what next?
Municipalities have the ability to influence these processes. They can, and indeed are encouraged to strive for meaningful engagement of stakeholders, including local archaeological and historical associations, and especially Aboriginal stakeholders. But only an informed public can insist that they do. If the public isn’t even aware that archaeology is taking place in its backyard, what basis is there for it to critique minimum standards and insist upon best practice?
Currently, what we have is a patchwork of archaeological assessments triggered by development applications that are carried out away from the public gaze, with minimal engagement of Aboriginal communities or other cultural stakeholders, and with no benefit to our shared understanding of the past.
In my view, the public interest would better be served by a process designed around public heritage priorities, namely: the preservation but also the celebration of our combined indigenous and settler heritage, public education and transparency, meaningful engagement of Aboriginal communities, and comprehensive documentation of local archaeological and cultural resources.
Such a process already exists – it’s called an archaeological management plan (AMP), and in fact, municipalities are encouraged to undertake them.
The (2014) Provincial Policy Statement (Section. 2.6.4) advises planning authorities to consider and promote the use of archaeological and cultural management plans in conserving cultural heritage and significant archaeological resources. The AMP improves the transparency of the planning process by providing a framework for the preservation of sites of cultural interest within which developers can safely plan and operate. It is also “a valuable communications and education tool that can help residents recognize the importance of archaeological resources to better understand the heritage of their community.” An AMP is not a legal obligation, but it is the hallmark of a municipality that values and protects its past.
Currently, our Township has none.
Under its new and progressive Council, Springwater Township has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in planning for the past, so that archaeological sites are no longer surprises that stall development, and so that the long overdue work can begin of learning and sharing a more complete cultural narrative.
How would this process look? It would start with an inventory of archaeological sites in Springwater, and result in an archaeological management plan that guides where development can and cannot happen for reasons of heritage preservation. In between, the Township would take charge of a process that so far has been developer-driven, and cease to see archaeology as strictly a planning issue. The process ought to look very different from its current manifestation – it should be transparent, it should engage the public in valuing its past without compromising the security of specific sites, and it should prioritize meaningful and equitable participation of all cultural stakeholders from the outset, foremost among these, those local and remote First Nations with ancestral connections to this land.
As an inclusive and public historical documentary project, an AMP provides a process that could help us weave a tighter and sturdier social fabric – something we may increasingly feel the need for as urban sprawl threatens to dilute our sense of community and heritage.
An AMP with a strong consultation and public communications piece would be a significant project with not inconsiderable resource implications. But while securing the budget for it may take some work, the mandate of the Township to take the lead is not in question.
Civilizations have faced and overcome more difficult challenges, if we can begin to grasp the importance of understanding our rich and complex local history, then I think, together, we can manage this one.