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Ottawa’s forgotten: Final chapter being written for remains recovered during LRT dig

Ottawa Sun
September 21, 2017

Perhaps one of the most poignant events of Canada’s 150th year will take place Sunday at the Canadian Museum of History.

There, members of the public will get a chance to pay their respects to a group of this region’s early settlers.

They are Ottawa’s forgotten.

The remains of 79 people who were left behind in what was once Barrack Hill Cemetery, the city’s first known graves site for Europeans, were unearthed in downtown Ottawa in 2013 after being discovered during the early stages of light-rail construction.

After a painstaking process that has taken years, the remains are about to be brought to their new, final resting place at Beechwood Cemetery. Before that, on Sunday, there will be a public visitation at the Canadian Museum of History.

“It’s particularly fitting with respect to the Ottawa 2017 events that this ceremony … occur in this year,” says city archivist Paul Henry.

During the two decades before the original cemetery closed in 1845, some 500 babies, children and adults were buried there.

However, when it came time to close the cemetery, in the name of progress and city building, only relatives who could afford to move their dead to another cemetery in Sandy Hill, now known as MacDonald Gardens Park, did so.

At the time, Henry says, Bytown sported a population of only 7,000 people and was still a Wild West, of sorts. Prior to the Municipal Corporations Act of 1849, it was incumbent upon the families to physically move the dead themselves, rather than being the responsibility of the county magistrate.

The unclaimed remained in their plots as new buildings and roads, including Queen and Metcalfe streets, were built over the two-acre plot of land.

“The city is fulfilling its civic duty with respect to the remains,” Henry says.

“The first set of remains were found as part of the LRT construction and so there’s a direct link between the city’s responsibility, but also in terms of the broader ethical responsibility … to ensure that these souls are appropriately cared for.”

The story, or at least its modern chapters, began on Sept. 19, 2013, when city workers were digging along Queen Street to prepare for LRT construction. A worker discovered human bones a metre below. That find was followed by two more discoveries, on Oct. 9, 2013 and Dec. 17, 2015.

Ben Mortimer, a senior archeologist with the engineering consulting firm Paterson Group, led the dig, along with Janet Young, an anthropologist with the Canadian Museum of History. They worked for several months in 2014 to exhume the remains from the former cemetery, originally bounded by Elgin and Metcalfe streets and Sparks and Queen streets. Nineteen skeletons were discovered in their original burial plots, however, only one man’s remains were discovered fully intact.

“We found there were a number of burials that were still in their original resting place, so coffin wood was present … human remains were there,” says Mortimer. “They had been disturbed through the years by all the utilities that had gone through, infrastructure development and so on and so forth throughout the area. Very few of them were fully intact, but a lot of them were still there.”

Given the lower social economic status of the majority of those still at the site, “grave goods” such as jewelry were not found, and most remains were wrapped in a shroud without clothing and shoes.

“If you are burying your relatives, then (families) are going to reuse the clothes and they’ll pass them down to somebody else,” Mortimer says.

To move the remains, Young’s onsite crew sifted thousands of bones, including many fragments, which were measured, photographed and transported to the museum at the end of each day.

“They were put in paper bags, because some of them were quite damp — you don’t use plastic because that would hold the moisture in and the bone would disintegrate — and then all those bags are loaded into banker’s boxes.”

Remains of the children required a more delicate touch. In most cases, they were “block lifted” with the surrounding soil and brought back to the lab at the museum to be “excavated under controlled conditions.”

Women averaged between five foot and five foot four inches tall, and men were between five foot five and five foot 10 inches. Most of the adults showed signs “that they had gone through periods of physiological stress when they were children,” says Young, who says such signs were evident in the adults’ weak tooth enamel. Worn joints also showed a “hard life,” for those likely working as labourers in lumber trade or possibly constructing the Rideau Canal. The cemetery was also in use during two cholera epidemics, which, Young says, may have wiped out entire families due to poor sanitation and drinking water, as well as a lack of proper medical care.

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