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This man fell into a hole and uncovered ancient remains. It raised questions about how Toronto builds on Indigenous lands

February 19, 2024

A plaque at Withrow Avenue Junior Public School, across the street from this discovery, mentions that Indigenous remains and artifacts dating back an estimated 5,000 years were found in the area in the 1880s.

John Brown at the site where he found Indigenous remains in January in his North Riverdale neighbourhood. Andrew Francis Wallace

Toronto Star: Trapped in a pit six feet below the North Riverdale street he has lived on for more than 30 years, John Brown made a startling discovery.

He was walking home on Withrow Avenue from an appointment on the morning of Jan. 5 and stepped onto the edge of his neighbour’s garden to avoid the large hole where a city of Toronto construction crew had removed part of the sidewalk. He felt the earth crumble beneath him.

“I went straight down,” said Brown, 74, who was lightly bruised from the fall. “Just about at eye level, there was a stick. Except it wasn’t a stick — it was a bone.”

The bone, he found out later, is among the centuries-old Indigenous remains uncovered after Brown’s fall.

The discovery has led to a city-led investigation into the origins of the remains — currently on hold until the ground thaws — along with a five-digit security bill. It’s also presented questions around how Toronto should address its history of building over sacred Indigenous places. The city is aware of the street’s history as an Indigenous burial site and a consultant who worked to develop the city’s plan to prevent the disruption of these areas is frustrated there was construction happening there. “It’s like, why aren’t we watching that?”

Discoveries of Indigenous remains have grown more frequent across southern Ontario with the rise of large-scale housing developments and infrastructure projects.

“Urban development has not typically taken the interest of Indigenous peoples into account,” said Heather Dorries, an assistant professor for the University of Toronto’s geography department and Centre for Indigenous Studies, and a member of Sagkeeng First Nation in Treaty 1.

‘A known site’

As the City of Toronto was built up, First Nations were not consulted about development over culturally significant areas. In recent years, the city has been developing a mapping program to identify areas where Indigenous or archaeologically significant sites are at risk of disruption.

Ron Williamson, founder of the archeological consulting company ASI Heritage, worked with the city to develop a previous archeological management plan to prevent disturbances of sites like the one in North Riverdale. “It’s still frustrating for me to hear about a burial being impacted in a known site,” he said.

According to Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner, workers had begun servicing a water line under the road. Huyer said that discoveries of buried human remains are not uncommon — every year his provincial office receives 30 to 50 reports. Each report is unique, he said, and the outcomes can vary.

Once the city completes its investigation, the province’s Registrar of Burial Sites in consultation with the First Nations will certify a burial site where the remains were found. Until that’s settled, the remains will be left on site and nearby construction postponed.

Tanya Hill-Montour, the archeological supervisor for Six Nations of the Grand River who has been consulting on investigations into the Withrow remains, says that the area was traditionally the shared territory of several First Nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Haudenosaunee, the Huron-Wendat and other Anishinaabeg peoples.

Investigations into the site have so far uncovered the remains of “two and a half” Indigenous people thought to have lived in the 1600s, she said, along with artifacts such as an animal hide scraper. Because of the site’s shared history, she says it is unlikely investigators will be able to determine which nation these people belonged to.

Hill-Montour says that current standards and guidelines dictated by the Ministry of Citizenship and Multiculturalism present a challenge for Indigenous groups seeking autonomy over decisions made about their ancestors’ remains.

As a result, Hill-Montour says she’s fighting back “all the time” against the ministry. She’s working with other Indigenous communities to develop guidelines for the ministry on how to improve this process, which they plan to present to the provincial government.

“It’s getting better,” she said, “but still, the Indigenous voice is really written out of this.”

A ministry spokesperson wrote in a statement to the Star that it adheres to the standards and guidelines laid out by the Ontario Heritage Act, which includes an “inclusive process” for engaging with Indigenous communities.

“As the regulator responsible for archaeology in Ontario, the Ministry of Citizenship and Multiculturalism ensures the satisfactory completion of all stages of an archaeological assessment, including Indigenous community engagement, as necessary,” he wrote.

The future of Withrow Avenue

A plastic tent now covers the spot where Brown fell, surrounded by tall metal fencing, traffic cones and police caution tape.

For the first two weeks after the discovery, Toronto police patrolled the site, but since it was deemed “non-criminal,” a security guard hired by the city through a private firm now keeps watch over the area. This has cost an estimated $17,418 so far as of Feb. 9.

After climbing out of the hole on a ladder lowered by construction workers, John Brown says he grappled with guilt over being responsible for the “violation” of a resting place. It wasn’t his first time discovering human remains: in 1956, as a child in Scarborough, he and a friend were among those who uncovered Indigenous remains at Taber Hill, and as a 17-year-old park ranger, he had to rebury coffins that had been unearthed due to erosion there.

The land on which Withrow Avenue runs was once an Indigenous burial site and village. When first developing the street in the 1880s, workers removed Indigenous remains and artifacts, which were donated to the Royal Ontario Museum.

Like many of Brown’s neighbours, he was aware of this history. A plaque at Withrow Avenue Junior Public School, across the street, mentions that Indigenous remains and artifacts dating back an estimated 5,000 years were found in the area. He and his wife were among the many people who attended a ceremony hosted by local Indigenous elders in January to honour those whose graves Brown uncovered.

The home in front of the site sits dark: neighbours say the property is under renovation, and the owners did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment.

Until the ground thaws and the investigation is complete, much is still uncertain, including how officials might balance the wishes of Indigenous nations in honouring the resting place of their ancestors with the existing homes and infrastructure.

The Star reached out to First Nations with claims to the area, several of whom declined to respond. Rose-Marie Ayotte, in a statement on behalf of the Huron-Wendat Nation, said, “It’s really important for us not to take any public position while the investigation is going on.”

For now, residents and Indigenous communities must wait on the city for more answers. Hill-Montour is not sure what the future holds for the remains, as that will be determined after “a lot of conversation.” She hopes they will stay at the site: not under the sidewalk, but perhaps beneath the yard of the adjoining home, designated with a memorial plaque.

“Every situation is unique,” she said, “but we generally go in with an agreement that the ancestors stay in that particular spot.”

Emily Fagan is a Toronto-based general assignment reporter for the Star. Reach her via email:

Jermaine Wilson is a Toronto-based general assignment reporter for the Star. Reach him via email: