When is a hill not just a hill?
When it’s actually an ossuary – or the site of human skeletal remains.
This is what I recently discovered about a hill not far from my home. Rather than being a natural bump on the landscape, it is actually a First Nations burial ground designated as a historical site.
In a ceremony called the Huron Feast of the Dead, it was the practice of the Wyandot people to move the remains of deceased relatives from their individual graves and rebury them in a final communal grave. Since it was their practice to move the community every 10 to 15 years as the resources of the area were depleted, placing their loved ones in communal graves was believed to provide them with protection in the afterlife.
Under a gray overcast sky in the heat and humidity of a Toronto summer day, I made my way up Tabor Hill. The sign is rather misleading because this isn’t really a park. This hill as been designated as a cemetery.
The discovery was made 60 years ago when the site was being developed for a new residential area. When construction equipment pulled up a shovel full of bones, work was stopped and the area subsequently protected by the city as parkland.
At the top of the mound now rests a large stone cairn with plaques dedicating the site.
Around the same time, university students found evidence of a First Nations village a few kilometres away.
Then less than 20 years ago, a much larger village site was uncovered a few kilometres further north in L’Amoreaux Park.
It is estimated that it supported a population of up to 1000 people.
The No Tobogganing sign I found at the bottom of the hill may seem rather mean-spirited if you don’t appreciate that the hill is in fact a cemetery. Back in the 1990s, concerns were raised by First Nations that this ground was not being respected as sacred and the cairn was routinely defaced by graffiti – often racist in tone.
As a result, tobogganing – which was very popular on the hill – was subsequently banned, but the ‘park’ sign has yet to be changed.
I can’t help but wonder if the people who live in this quiet neighbourhood understand the significance of the hill in their front yard. Their first clue would be from the names of the streets in the area …
… but given the garbage I picked up on my way down the hill, it makes me sad to know that there are those who simply don’t care.