A ceremony decades in the making took place at a small Mi'kmaw community in central New Brunswick Saturday.
Thousands of artifacts, some of them thought to be as as much as 3,000 years old, were returned to the Metepenagiag First Nation.
As part of the repatriation, several items, including spear heads and copper beads were placed in shadow boxes.
After a traditional smudging ceremony, those boxes were passed from the hands of provincial archaeologists to the outstretched arms of children from the community, who then paraded them into the Metepenagiag Heritage Park where they will be stored.
'A long time coming'
"There's a real sense of pride today," said Metepenagiag Chief Bill Ward. "This is a long time coming."
"We've been patiently waiting to be able to have the capacity to house them to and to show them off," he said.
Many of the artifacts were discovered in the 1970s by local historian Joe Mike Augustine who came across a burial mound in the community. That area is now known as the Augustine Mound National Historic Site.
The rest were discovered nearby at what is now the Oxbow National Historic Site.
The artifacts were dug up and conserved in provincial facilities, but now 60,000 of them are being turned over to the Heritage Park.
Many will be on display, while others will be made available only by appointment to those who want to study them.
Ward said the return of the artifacts will allow people from the First Nations community to share their culture and educate others about how long they occupied the land.
Looking to the future
The prospect of educating more people is a bonus for Malcolm Ward.
Growing up the area, Ward said he was always warned by elders to avoid disturbing artifacts.
Following a passion for his heritage, he took an archeology technician course at the Metepenagiag Heritage Park.
Now he hopes to pass on his knowledge to the First Nation children in the area to help them better understand their culture.
"If they need the knowledge," Ward said, "they can always come here."
He said the return of the artifacts would give children an opportunity he wasn't lucky enough to have.
"Having the information presented on-hand here is a plus," he said.
'Fulfilling the dream'
During Saturday's ceremony, the federal and provincial governments pledged $300,000 to the Metepenagiag Heritage Park.
The funding will be used to protect and preserve the park, as well as to attract more visitors.
While the return of the artifacts is a major victory for the area's heritage, efforts are also underway to have the area recognized internationally.
The Heritage Park's chair Claude DeGrace is waiting on word from Parks Canada to see if the site can be submitted for consideration to the UNESCO committee.
"I think getting a UNESCO site at Metepenagiag would be fulfilling the dream of Joe Mike Augustine," DeGrace said.
He said many of the First Nation's former chiefs and elders have always seen the site's potential.
"I think the government of Canada should at least give us the chance to make our case to UNESCO," he said.