A display in the First Peoples Hall of the Canadian Museum of History in 2018 (via Wikimedia Commons)

A major new report released on Tuesday, September 27 by the Canadian Museums Association (CMA) calls for greater support and funding for Indigenous organizations and museums as they pursue Indigenous “self-determination” at all levels of governance. 

The CMA estimates that 6.7 million Indigenous objects and human remains continue to be held in Canadian museums, with approximately 94% of them held in eight institutions. The report finds that few museums have formal repatriation policies and that even fewer of them are publicly accessible. Currently, only one province, Alberta, has repatriation legislation. The report also finds that although many museums showcase Indigenous-related programming and say they value Indigenous engagement, Indigenous curators and staff members are underrepresented, suggesting that Indigenous professionals are often slotted into advisory roles.

“We were already aware of the colonial legacy of museums,” Rebecca Mackenzie, co-author of the report, said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “This presented an opportunity to really determine to what level Indigenous communities have been allowed to have self-determination in [museum] spaces.”

A new report released by the Canadian Museums Association offers a set of standards and recommendations for museums to enact Indigenous self-determination.

Research for the report has been ongoing for over three years and has involved almost a dozen engagement sessions and interviews with Indigenous heritage professionals and community leaders, a survey of over 300 museums, and a key performance indicator study of 84 Canadian institutions.

The report, entitled “Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums,” was commissioned as part of the nation’s response to Call to Action 67, one of 94 calls to action issued in 2015 by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was established to reckon with Canada’s history of Indian residential schools, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their communities for purposes of assimilation.

In 2015, the TRC’s report indicated that approximately 150,000 children were removed to residential schools and concluded that the educational system constituted cultural genocide. Since the conclusion of the TRC’s work, researchers have discovered thousands of unmarked graves at residential school sites. 

Call to Action 67 petitioned the federal government to supply the CMA with funding “to undertake, from collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices” to assess compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, the declaration was only formally adopted by Canada in 2021, and emphasizes Indigenous rights to self-determination and to the maintenance of their cultural practices. One article specifically delineates that nations must provide redress for cultural and spiritual property taken without consent.

“Reconciliation is a gift for museums,” the CMA report concludes.

Of the report’s 10 recommendations, one urges the federal government to pass legislation mandating and funding repatriation efforts. Unlike the United States, Mackenzie explains, Canada does not have comparable legislation that requires federally funded institutions to return Native cultural items to Indigenous tribes and organizations. The report also recommends certain best practices for museums, such as hiring Indigenous professionals into permanent positions and consulting Indigenous rights holders to determine how to care for repatriated objects. 

“Reconciliation is a gift for museums,” the report stresses. “Together, we have an opportunity to be moved to enact and support Indigenous self-determination.”

“Indigenous communities have a story to say over what happened, how these objects are cared for, where they are, and how they’re presented,” Mackenzie says. “It’s going to take a cross-sector approach: governments, provinces, heritage organizations, coming together. The premise of this entire report is that implementing and supporting Indigenous self-determination is everybody’s job.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.