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BACK ROADS BILL: Artifact collection to be repatriated

This week Bill tells us about a significant collection of artifacts in northern Ontario

Artifacts are present in all lives, they symbolize and represent relationships, history and events that matter.

Behind the four light brown hardwood display cases of expansive glass, single doors and pull-out drawers at the Iroquois Falls Library are more than one thousand indigenous artifacts denoting lifetimes of residence on Lake Abitibi.

Consistent with the findings of Honouring Truth, Reconciling for the Future (2015) two smaller communities are recognizing repatriation as a priority, the right thing to do; and are doing something about it.

This big story of repatriation is evolving between Wahgoshig First Nation and the Town of Iroquois Falls.

On the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Sept. 30, it is anticipated one of the most extensive collections of indigenous artifacts, certainly in northern Ontario and elsewhere, will be returned from the town to the First Nations community.

Wahgoshig First Nation is located east of Matheson on Highway 101. It was formerly known as the Abitibi-Ontario Band of Abitibi Indians.

The community has a population of approximately 230 people and is located adjacent to Blueberry Lake. Also known as Reserve #70 (James Bay Treaty #9), it encompasses 19,239 acres. The north end of the community meets the south shore of Abitibi Lake, which divides northeastern Ontario from northwestern Quebec.

The Town of Iroquois Falls lies just off Hwy 11 on the banks of the Abitibi River, west of Lake Abitibi. Tracing its roots back to 1912, the community of Iroquois Falls has been cited as Northern Ontario's 'Original Model Town.' From the 2016 census, there are 4,537 residents living in the town.

In December of 2014, Resolute Forest Products announced the permanent closure of its newsprint mill in the town.

Jordan Collection

The opening of the Jordan Collection was 32 years ago on Sunday, March 4, 1990, at 2:30 p.m., at the Iroquois Public Library on Synagogue St.

The collection is featured in the Wayne F. LeBelle book titled Folly – The Story of Iroquois Falls.

On page two it reads: “The Iroquois Falls Public Library display 1,000 artifacts of archaeological specimen includes important large prehistoric stone implements, flaked on faces (bifaces), extremely large crescentic end scrapers, trihedral adzes (similar to an axe). Some of the items are 9,000 years old.”

The collection, for the most part, consists of leftover tools, hunting and gathering utility pieces and the remains of flint knapping by the various civilizations (family clans) over ongoing time periods.

From the collection: “Prehistoric sites on Lake Abitibi are both numerous and rich in artifact remains. The area was a major population since the most recent glaciation and ranks in terms of numbers and density of sites among the richest within the boreal forest environment of Canada. The entire story of prehistoric peoples for northeastern Ontario from approximately 6,000 B.C to the fur trade is present here on Lake Abitibi. This complete archaeological record rarely found in one geographical location greatly increases the archaeological importance of the area.”

The Jordan site, the oldest site was first located in 1973 by Justin C. and Marjorie M. Jordan of Iroquois Falls and was collected during the next three summers. They are seen as leaders in the community and at the mill and the arena bears his name.

Archaeologists have documented at least 94 archaeological sites on Lake Abitibi.

An overview provided and developed by the library states: “It is entirely due to the foresight and initiative of the Jordans that archaeology on Lake Abitibi was carried on. Their work made possible John Pollock’s 1984 Ph.D. thesis…”.

Dr. John Pollock is one of Northern Ontario’s well-known archaeologists and he knows this collection. He is now retired from the company he helped initiate, Settlement Surveys, in Temiskaming Shores. Within his thesis, he explains and identifies the significant timeline of the early artifacts. “In conclusion, the total available evidence suggests that the Jordan site is the earliest occupation of the post-glacial period in the Lake Abitibi area and that this complex dates to the time period 5250 B.C and 4000 B.C. (7250-6000 years B.P.)…”

“Jordan Collection is regionally significant, it was collected from eroding sites (all surface - no digging) by Justin and Marjorie,” he said recently.


In Canada, a rightful reckoning has just begun with regard to the rightful ownership of artifacts. It was highlighted by the Pope’s most recent summer visit.

Indigenous groups who were shown a few items in the collection when they travelled to the Vatican last spring to meet with Pope Francis questioned how some of the works were actually acquired and wonder what else may be in storage.

You can see the Government of Canada's progress in responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 94 Calls to Action, especially through this link. Call 67 addresses the transfer/return of displayed collections.

"We call 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 to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations," it says.

In March of 2021, the Indigenous Collections Symposium 2021: Mashkawatgong-mamawewiziwin – strengthening our bonds, sharing our practices. was shared by Ontario Museums. Two highlight presentations of the symposium were ‘Community-Based Collections’ and ‘Accessing Museum Collections as an Indigenous Person.’

The symposium focused on putting ideas into practice, it “aimed to support and connect museum professionals from Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations and members of Indigenous communities.”

Chief June Black said, on August 30, that this is a big story for the First Nation with regards to the collection.

“There will be a sacred ceremony and there are more details to follow,” she said.

When elected, Chief June Black reached out to the Iroquois Falls town council and, regarding the exchange, said, “there has been a continuing spirit of cooperation.”

September 30

Councilor Darcy Cylbosky, Town of Iroquois Falls has been involved in the repatriation process.

“There is to be a hand-off of the Jordan Collection through a ceremony at Anson Park on Friday, Sept. 30 -National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day." Darcy said, “Chief June Black of Wahgoshig FN has requested, in the past to town council the return of the artifacts. Some at the library and in Iroquois Falls are disappointed but there is a new understanding related to the repatriation process of such a collection.”

A town council resolution is expected on Sept. 12. Wahgoshig First Nation will decide on the future of the artifacts.

I first saw this display more than twenty years ago and have returned a number of times to look, learn and appreciate the Lake Abitibi civilizations.

The display is precisely labelled and explained according to the Borden number DeHa-8. A Borden number is a number from a map of Canada with a grid, Each region in the grid has a letter and number coordinate.

I again visited the collection this summer and then journeyed to the Jordan site on Lake Abitibi in search of the Pierre de Troyes historic portage on Long Point, a 12-kilometre-long (7.5 mi) peninsula within Abitibi-De-Troyes Provincial Park. This is to be another story.

En route, the Jordan site was passed by. This year, as in many years, the lake levels were again high because of the Twin Falls Dam on the river.

When water levels are low there are many exposed beaches where encampments were located on the shore of the enormous lake. Abitibiwinni First Nation, an Algonquian First Nation, is located in the community of Pikogan in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region on the Quebec side of the lake.

For now, you can see the collection at the Iroquois Falls Public Library.

Many good things happen on the back roads this is a story that may become exemplary within the spirit of what is the right thing to do.


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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