Discover Ontario: Taber Hill Ossuary

Within the urban sprawl of Scarborough, located just a short walk from the chaos of Lawrence Avenue East, lies a tranquil green space quite unlike the other parks in this part of the city.

Walking north from Lawrence along Bellamy, you come across what appears to be a vast lawn on the eastern side of the street. It gives the impression of being a park, however it lacks any municipal signs to confirm this status. Instead, we’re presented with this:

 

Ongwe-Oweh loosely translates to “the original people”, and this sign marks the importance of the site to the First Nations People of Ontario. This is Taber Hill Ossuary, a burial mound belonging to the Iroquois.

 

For Scarborough, the 1950s was a time of development. Farm land was being converted to subdivisions, strip malls and motels were popping up along Kingston Road, and overpasses for Highway 401 were still being constructed.

During this time, Taber Hill was assumed to be a natural occurrence. It was determined that its dirt would be used for the construction of a highway overpass, and in its place new homes would be built. Demolishment of the 60 foot tall mound began on August 17, 1956. Using a steam shovel, the work crew had already dug about 100 feet into the side of the hill when they discovered a large deposit of human bones. Experts were called in to investigate, and the site was identified as a First Nations burial pit, attributed to the Iroquois and their Feast of the Dead ritual.

Estimates vary for the number of people buried and the time to which the site dates, however the most common numbers provided tend to be about 472 people and an age that’s estimated to about 1250 AD. It proves to be one of the earliest ossuary sites in the province, and its discovery created an excited reaction from Scarborough Township leaders (check out this great article written for Torontoist that offers an interesting read on the subject).

A reburial ceremony was held from October 19-21 of that same year, and in 1961 a memorial boulder was placed at the top of the hill.

 

Installed on the boulder are two plaques. The first gives details on the site’s historical importance, and the second, which is located on the reverse side of the boulder, is an Iroquois Prayer:

O Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I am a man before you, one of your many children. I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunsets. Make my hands respect the things you have made, my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so I may know the things you have taught my people, the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength, O Creator, not to be superior to my brothers, but to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eye, so that when life fades as the setting sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.

The site is considered a cemetery, however due to the hill’s size it is often used for tobogganing in the winter. I wanted to share this post as a reminder that Taber Hill, and other sites like it, deserve reverence and respect. They are sacred spaces and should be honoured as part of Canada’s history and the heritage of our First Nations people.

I’ve lived in Scarborough my whole life, yet I didn’t know of this site’s existence until a few weeks ago. Ontario offers a fascinating amount of First Nations history, and provides many opportunities for us modern-day citizens to embrace it.

If you live in the area, take a few moments to visit Taber Hill. There are a number of large trees on site which provide the perfect amount of shade to sit in, reflect, and honour the first inhabitants of what is now known as Toronto.

Sunday, June 21 is National Aboriginal Day in Canada. Visit this site to find out what events are planned near you.

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