Liberal MP's bill aims to create national strategy for repatriating Indigenous cultural items

A Nova Scotia Liberal MP who has tabled a private member's bill on the repatriation of Indigenous cultural items says he hopes it starts a national conversation.

Millbrook First Nation in N.S. fighting for return of historical regalia in Australian museum drawer

Liberal MP Bill Casey came up with his private members bill after a visit to the Millbrook First Nation cultural centre. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

A Nova Scotia Liberal MP who has tabled a private member's bill on the repatriation of Indigenous cultural items says he hopes it starts a national conversation.

Bill C-391, titled Aboriginal Cultural Property Repatriation Act, calls on the federal government to create a national strategy that includes a mechanism for Indigenous communities and organizations to repatriate cultural items.

The strategy, developed in co-operation with Indigenous Peoples and the provinces, would also encourage the return of cultural items, according to the bill.

"I want to get it on the table," said Liberal MP Bill Casey.

"I want to get people talking and I hope the bill will go through to start the process for the government to develop a strategy because there isn't one that I know of."

The private member's bill was tabled Thursday.

Casey said he drafted the bill after visiting Millbrook First Nation cultural centre in Truro, N.S., where he said he saw a copy of a beautifully embroidered Mi'kmaq robe from the mid-1800s behind a glass case.

A blown-up image of a black embroidered jacket with red trim, embroidered mocassins and pouch, and a quill pipe.
Millbrook First Nation wants to repatriate historical Mi'kmaq items from storage at a museum in Austrialia. The First Nation only has images, displayed above, of the items. (Bill Casey)

Mi'kmaq items held in several countries

Casey said the curator for the centre told him the robe — purchased by a British army officer and writer named Samuel Huyghue from a Mi'kmaq artisan in 1843 — was now sitting in a drawer at a museum in Melbourne, Australia. Huyghue, who wrote about Indigenous peoples and the Acadian expulsion, died in Australia and bequeathed the item to the museum.

"I didn't know that artifacts from my riding are in Australia and that should be registered," said Casey.

"We have such a rich Indigenous history and it is so important for young Indigenous people to be able to see that."

Casey said he has since learned that Mi'kmaq items are also held in the U.S., Britain and other countries.

First Nation fighting for items' return

Millbrook First Nation Chief Bob Gloade welcomed the proposed bill. He said the First Nation has been trying to repatriate the robe along with accompanying regalia, including beaded moccasins, for a decade.

"It has cultural significance and it has historical importance to have it back," he said.

The First Nation only has images of the items, said Gloade.

"Having federal legislation will make it a little easier with the support of the federal government," he said.

Millbrook First Nation Chief Bob Gloade says his community wants the return of cultural items stored at a museum in Australia. (CBC)

A spokesperson for Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said Casey's bill was being reviewed to determine if will receive government support. The thrust of the bill fits with the government's approach on the issue, said the spokesperson.

"These important cultural objects were taken or stolen under our colonial regime's disguise of superiority of 'cultural preservation,'" said Joly's spokesperson Simon Ross, in an emailed statement.

"This is not the path we want to walk. We will continue to recognize the importance of of these objects as we move toward reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples."

Ottawa pushing for repatriation of Beothuks' remains

Ross said Joly issued an official request last year to the National Museums of Scotland to repatriate the remains of Nonosabasut and his wife Demasduit, two of the last Beothuks, who were taken from their graves in 1828. The Beothuks, an Indigenous people of Newfoundland and Labrador, were declared extinct in 1829.

Last year, Joly also announced $3 million for the Masterworks Gallery and Public Education Centre at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology to aid in preserving and displaying Indigenous artifacts repatriated to the province.

Casey said he expects his bill will go through second reading sometime this spring.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him

With files from Dean Beeby