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Taber Hill – An unassuming hill that became a significant ethnological discovery

July 2020

Large parts of the earth feature rolling topography; any land formation, hill, or raised land, that is not high enough to be considered a mountain, that has been formed by erosion or some other force in nature like glaciers.

Sometimes the hills we see around our communities are man-made, like Taber Hill, located near the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Bellamy Road, in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough.

This unassuming hill is actually an ossuary containing the skeletons of over 500 Huron-Wendat First Nations people, possibly dating back to the 13th or 14th century.

Covering almost an acre, this long-forgotten ossuary was determined to be about fifty feet long, seven feet wide, and one foot deep. It was discovered by accident on 17 August 1956, when a construction crew was in the process of leveling the 60 foot high hill, so that the soil could be used in the construction of an overpass over Highway 401. After leveling the hill, the area was to be re-developed into the Bendale subdivision, something that did indeed happen on land surrounding Taber Hill.

The construction crews had dug around one hundred feet into the hill, when they uncovered a large collection of human bones. As required, all construction work on the site was stopped, allowing for an archeological investigation. The bones were first thought to be non-Indian, owing to a lack Indian artifacts on site. Instead, it was suspected to be a mass grave for victims of a cholera epidemic in 1870, or a disposal site for human remains used in research by medical schools.

However, further investigation supervised by Royal Ontario Museum assistant curator of ethnology Walter Kenyon, was able to determine that they were bones belonging Huron-Wendat First Nations people, dating back to around the 14th century. The skeletons were found to have been buried in a ritual manner consistent with the Wendat Feast of Souls.

Kenyon’s examination of the site found a second burial pit, one that Kenyon described as “…the deepest ossuary I have ever seen or heard of…” and “the most significant ethnological discovery in Canada’s history.”

Other evidence of the presence of First Nations people in the area was discovered that same year, such as an Iroquoian village site at Brimley Road where it crosses West Highland Creek, a village that is thought to be connected to the Taber Hill ossuary.

A larger Huron-Wendat village site was found in 2000 just north of L’Amoreaux Park (North), northwest of McNicoll and Kennedy. Five other Iroquoian sites, including another ossuary, have been found in Scarborough’s Rouge River Valley.

As a result of the discovery of this very significant discovery, Taber Hill was declared a national historical site by Ontario Minister of Travel and Publicity Bryan Cathcart on 22 August 1956, and was formally purchased by the Ontario government.

An Iroquois Feast of the Dead reburial ceremony was held from 19-21 October 1956, supervised by Chief Joseph Logan, and attended by more than 200 indigenous people and several thousand non-indigenous people. A new hole was dug to re-inter the bones, with wold pelts placed on top of the bones.

The memorial stone boulder sitting atop Taber Hill was installed in 1961 by the Township of Scarborough, with a plaque identifying the site as “an ancient Indian ossuary of the Iroquois nation” with an Iroquois Prayer on the other side.

While Taber Hill is officially designated as a cemetery, it is frequently used simply as a park by people who are apparently oblivious to its actual status, with the hill making tobogganing a popular activity in the winter.

Over the years, several plans were made in conjunction with Taber Hill. Gus Harris, then Reeve of Scarborough Township, proposed using surrounding land to build a re-creation of an Iroquois village, creating a tourist attraction connected to Taber Hill. Another proposal was the creation of a First Nations Museum in Scarborough, but nothing came to fruition.

Harris, who would later serve as Mayor of the Borough, and then City, of Scarborough from 1978-1988, expressed his regrets, but as he expressed to the Toronto Star, “At least we have kept our promise to the Indians and the sacred burial ground when we said the bones would never be disturbed again.”

Sources: https://torontoist.com/2015/02/historicist-the-tabor-hill-ossuary, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taber_Hill, https://trca.ca/news/tabor-hill-ossuary-scarborough-60-years-after-almost-flattened, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gus_Harris.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/taber-hill-an-unassuming-hill-that-became-a-significant-ethnological-discovery/

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