The 67th Call to Action and the Repatriation of Indigenous Cultural Artifacts

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief by Charlotte Mackenzie

Totem poles at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. In May of this year, a totem pole (not pictured) was Repatriated to the Haida Nation, located on the island of Haida Gwaii in Northern BC (12) (13)


The repatriation of cultural artifacts from museums to Indigenous Nations/Peoples is an emotional and controversial issue for many Indigenous Canadians. For hundreds of years, settler Canadians stole millions of Indigenous artifacts from their native territories, and these artifacts now reside in museums around the world. As of 2019, Canadian Heritage Institutions (such as the Canadian Museum of History, the Royal BC Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum) possess approximately 6.5 million cultural artifacts and 2000 ancestral remains (1). While individual museums at the local, provincial, and national levels have official policies and procedures with regard to the repatriation of these artifacts, there is no official national policy or oversight of the repatriation process. Currently, the federal government is beginning to address this lack of policy.

The government’s willingness to devote time and resources to the repatriation of artifacts was prompted by the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). These calls to action were created to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian Reconciliation" (2). While the government still needs to address many of the Commission’s concerns, they are formulating a plan with regards to the 67th call to action, which calls “upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices” (3).

In 2018, the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) formed a working group “to discuss a path forward to guide the CMA in responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 67” (4). The CMA’s reconciliation effort is largely being funded by the Federal Government’s Department of Canadian Heritage, who pledged to “codevelop, with Indigenous Peoples, a framework for repatriating Indigenous cultural property and ancestral remains” as part of their 2020-21 departmental plan (5). This effort by the CMA involves working with the TRC to identify key issues and then to produce and distribute a report to museums around the country that will provide “clear recommendations for the inclusion and representation of Indigenous communities within museums and cultural centres” (6). Unfortunately, this report is not expected to be finished until Fall 2021, which means that Canada still lacks a clear national process for repatriation of artifacts.

While the CMA and the federal government appear to be addressing the 67th Call to Action, it is unclear whether the report will include a plan to address the financial costs of repatriation. Returning artifacts to First Nations communities costs tens of thousands of dollars, especially when dealing with large, fragile artifacts, such as totem poles. There are also costs associated with the ceremonies conducted when important artifacts or ancestral remains leave a museum and again when they arrive at their traditional ancestral home. The only province that currently offers financial support specifically for the repatriation of Indigenous artifacts is British Columbia. In 2016, the government provided “$2-million investment over three years to the Royal BC Museum for repatriation activities. The result of this funding was the release of a repatriation handbook created by the Royal BC Museum in conjunction with the Haida Gwaii Museum to repatriate their artifacts. The handbooks provide “support communities and museums that are in the beginning stages of planning for repatriation in BC and at national and international levels.” In June of this year, the provincial government further supported the repatriation process by providing $500,000 to the BC Museum Association specifically to support indigenous communities looking to repatriate their artifacts.

Currently, Indigenous groups are limited in their abilities to reclaim stolen artifacts due to insufficient funding and a lack of standardized processes. It is unclear what recommendation will emerge from the CMA’s ongoing review of the repatriation process in Canada, and whether their recommendation will be financially feasible. However, the repatriation of artifacts is a vital part of reconciliation in Canada, and as such, government and Indigenous groups both hope the recommendations will offer clear guidelines for museums and Indigenous people across the country.

  1. Heritage Canada, 2020. Government of Canada Survey of Heritage Institutions, 2019. https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/corporate/transparency/open-government/standing-committee mandate-letter/mandate-letter-key-messages-facts.html

  2. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2015. http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

  3. Article 67 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions 94 Calls to Action, 2015. For further readings: http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf

  4. About the Canadian Museum Association-Reconciliation Program. https://www.museums.ca/site/aboutthecma/reconciliationprogram

  5. Heritage Canada, 2020. Mandate Letter to the Minister of Canadian Heritage — Key messages and Facts (Unique Commitments). https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/corporate/transparency/open government/standing-committee-mandate-letter/mandate-letter-key-messages-facts.html

  6. About the Canadian Museum Association-Reconciliation Program. https://www.museums.ca/site/aboutthecma/reconciliationprogram

  7. Meissner, 2019. For an example of the ceremonies necessary when taking down a totem pole: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2019/06/06/news/aging-haida-totem-comes-down-during ceremony-outside-royal-bc-museum

  8. BC Gov News, 2020. Helping First Nations bring ancestors, belongings home: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2020TAC0032-001114

  9. BC Gov News, 2020. Helping First Nations bring ancestors, belongings home: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2020TAC0032-001114

  10. BC Gov News, 2020. Helping First Nations bring ancestors, belongings home: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2020TAC0032-001114

  11. BC Gov News, 2020. Helping First Nations bring ancestors, belongings home: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2020TAC0032-001114

  12. Rowley, 2020: Yahguudangang: A Haida Pole Returns Home: https://moa.ubc.ca/2020/05/yahguudangang-a-haida-pole-returns-home/

  13. Image By Arnold C - Own work, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=837659