In 1976, Grimsby resident and Recreation and Park Department employee Lawson Allez found six copper kettles, seven french felling axes, a conch shell, two pendants made from a conch, a human skull, and bone fragments in Grimsby's Centennial Park. He knew that he had found a ritual burial ground. Immediately, he contacted Florence Martin, Curator of the Stone Shop Museum in Grimsby, who then advised him to call the Royal Ontario Museum. The next day a team of archaeologists led by Walter Kenyon arrived on site. The dig was a six month project, and at its completion, 300 remains of the Neutral people were found in 63 graves, along with hundreds of artifacts. The largest grave, Grave 62, contained the remains of 104 people (46 adult males, 32 adult women, and 26 children), as well as numerous items According to Kenyon, each grave "reveal[ed] something different in the pattern and manner of burial."
Archaeological findings and mentions in writings from early French Missionaries are the only things known about the Neutral People. They once occupied the land between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. As an agricultural society, they grew corn, beans, squash and tobacco. During the Iroquois and Huron wars, the Neutral people sold flint arrowheads and spear points to both sides (hence the name Neutral). Experts in the field speculated that once the Iroquois beat the Hurons, they turned on the Neutrals, defeating them and assimilating those left into their nation.
The earliest account of the Neutral people was in 1615 when Samuel de Champlain sent Missionary Etienne Brulé to the Susquehanna River. Brulé's route for this mission took him through Neutral territory, but beyond this fact, there is no other information recorded. Several years later Father Joseph de la Roche Daillon created the first detailed written account. He traveled into Neutral territory with two French companions, Grenole and Lavallée. While there, he was adopted into the household of Souharisson, a powerful chief. Daillon's 1634 description of his adopted father was as follows:
This man is the chief of the greatest credit and authority that has ever been in all these nations; for he is not only chief of this village, but of all those of the nation, composed of twenty-eight towns, cities and villages, made like those in the Huron country, and also of several little hamlets of seven or eight cabins, built in various parts convenient for fishing, hunting, or agriculture.
In his writings, Daillon also spoke of the Neutral territory stating that it was "incomparably larger, more beautiful, and better than any other of these countries," and that this idyllic setting made him the "happiest man in the world."
According to Daillon's accounts, the Huron tribe was distressed by the Neutral's relationship with the French. He explained that they wanted to suppress Neutral trade with Europeans, "so that they might have the trade with these nations themselves exclusively, which is very profitable to them." As a result, the Hurons spread rumours about Daillon, calling him a magician, and if he was not killed immediately, "he would taint the air of their country, he would poison many of the people, and he would set fire to the villages." Huron descriptions of Daillon resulted in the Neutrals breaking contact with the French and other Europeans. European artifacts were found within the Neutral burial ground. These items would have been acquired by the Huron and Iroquois, rather than from direct trade.
A few years after Daillon's visit, various epidemics swept through the area, greatly affecting the Neutral people. Perhaps their suspicion of Daillon and other Europeans did not stem from Huron rumours, but instead from the threats of European contact. This account foreshadowed the negative consequences of European contact for Indigenous peoples in subsequent decades. Sadly, after facing disease, famine and war, it is believed that the Neutral people were defeated by the Iroquois in 1650.
326 years later, Walter Kenyon and his ROM staff "[added] a significant new chapter in the history of the Neutral Indians." Although the dig helped to uncover more information about the Neutrals, several Indigenous groups in the area were upset about the removal of bodies from the sacred burial ground. Larry Johnston, Treaty Research Worker with the Union of Ontario Indians, stated, "we feel highly offended and insulted by digs such as these which are going on throughout the province with no input or consultations from Native people." At that time, there were no measures stipulating that Indigenous peoples' input was required in archaeological digs. In fact, Aboriginal Engagement was not introduced into the Ontario Standard and Guidelines of Archaeologists until 2011. The Neutral findings added richness to the history of Grimsby, Ontario and the country; however, the methods utilized by Kenyon and his team unfortunately disregarded Indigenous peoples' cultural beliefs, and showcased the prejudices the archaeological field and greater society had towards Indigenous people. Since that time there have been many successful digs involving Indigenous communities. This collaborative approach offers a step in the right direction, contributing to reconciliation efforts.
This blog post was made possible with the help from the staff of the Grimsby museum. Julie Bushey, the museum's Collection Management Assistant, kindly pulled together resources on the topic to assist with my research. For those interested in learning more about the Neutral People and the archaeological dig, visit the Grimsby Museum.
Walter Kenyon also conducted an archaeological dig in the Rainy River District where several remains were found of the Blackduck and Laurel people. To learn more about this, visit my blog post Manitou Mounds of Northwestern Ontatio.
Click here to learn more about Engaging Aboriginal Communities in Archaeology (Ontario, 2011)
 Dorothy Turcotte, Gleanings From Grimsby (Grimsby: Grimsby Historical Society, 2007), 80-81.
 Walter Kenyon. The Grimsby Site: A Historic Neutral Cemetery (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1982), 193-205.
 Newspaper article clipping, unknown source, 2017.43.5, Grimsby Museum.
 Walter Kenyon, The Grimsby Site: A Historic Neutral Cemetery, 1-4.
 Greed Was Fatal Vice for The Neutrals, The Spectator, October 30, 1976. Record 2017.43.6, Grimsby Museum.
Walter Kenyon, The Grimsby Site: A Historic Neutral Cemetery, 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 2.
Indians are Insulted and Offended by Digging, newspaper clipping, unknown source, 2017.43.6, The Grimsby Museum.
Shared Value Solutions. "Archaeology and Indigenous Rights and Interests." http://info.sharedvaluesolutions.com/blog/archaeology-and-indigenous-rights-and-interests (accessed July 25, 2017)
Recently, my fiancée Adam and I visited the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historic Centre in Northwestern Ontario. This National Historic Site encompasses museum galleries and an interpretive tour of seventeen ancient burial mounds along the Rainy River shoreline. Over the last century the Ojibway people have called this land home. Before this, the Laurel and Blackduck traversed this area. Our tour guide specified that the mounds were between 300 and 900 years old, with the largest mound containing at least one hundred people. This impressive mound is the second largest in North America, next to one located in Minnesota.
While on the tour, our guide stopped at a particular mound stating that it was “still in progress.” In the 1960s, archaeologist and curator Walter Andrew Kenyon proceeded with a dig, removing seven bodies from a mound. These bodies were then sent to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) for study and display. Over twenty years after their removal, the bodies were repatriated back to the community. Another disruptive incident occurred when a gravel businessman operating on the property drove over one of the smaller mounds with his truck. The Ojibway community decided to incorporate the returned bodies, as well as those disturbed by the truck, into a new mound. Our guide asked us if we wanted to partake in the burial ritual, adding dirt from the old mound into that of the new. We agreed, and walked over to the site of the old mound. She told us to pick up the dirt with our left hand, as this is the hand closest to our heart. Normally in Ojibway tradition ceremonial spaces are approached in a clockwise fashion. However, because this ritual dealt with death and mourning we were asked to approach it in the opposite direction. We were given tobacco, a traditional offering, to mix with the dirt. Adam and I approached the new mound walking counter-clockwise, sprinkling the dirt on the mound.
As non-Aboriginal Canadians it was touching to be offered participation in this traditional, solemn ritual. This action allowed us to form a connection to the nature and land around us, to better understand Ojibway culture, to pay respects to those who came before us and to become involved in the site’s evolving history. Given the troubled history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations this symbolized a reconciliatory bridge between our two cultures and allowed both groups to share in a single Canadian history.
The Round House, a space used for ceremony, has nine walls to signify the nine bands that signed Treaty 3. The four cedar pillars in the centre represent the four directions. The sand on the ground is significant because Ojibway dancers believe that they should be connected to the earth. Thus, there is nothing between the sand and the earth below in this space.
Canada prides itself on being a multicultural, inclusive country. Many identities now exist under the umbrella of Canadian identity, where individuals can express different value systems, opinions and perspectives. This reality poses a challenge to policy makers and cultural institutions since it becomes difficult to represent all Canadian voices. In order to create a more comprehensive history it is important to discuss the concept of social cohesion. This concept refers to the process that bonds individuals together at both the communal and national level, achieved by establishing common values, civic order, democratic participation, equal opportunities, and a sense of belonging.[i] Under Pierre Trudeau’s government the Constitution Act and Multiculturalism Act were passed as a means for creating a cross-cultural understanding and harmony in Canadian society. They aid in integrating different groups into society and allow them to take part in social, cultural, economic and political affairs.[ii] Acts like these paved the way for the Museum Act (1990), which resulted in museums becoming more democratic institutions. This Act states that its responsibility lies in “preserving and promoting the heritage of Canada and all its peoples throughout Canada and abroad and in contributing to the collective memory and sense of identity of all Canadians.”[iii] This policy shifted heritage institutions’ focus away from a one-dimensional nationalistic narrative and directed it towards creating a more inclusive story.
Increased globalization and immigration have changed the way Canadian society has imagined itself and museums are now aiming to articulate these changes within their exhibits. [iv] Presently, museum experiences have become essential for enhancing citizens’ confidence about belonging and help foster a larger community identity.[v] For instance, the Canadian Museum of History is currently in the process of creating a more inclusive exhibit space. In the 1970s the museum decided to treat Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal histories as two separate entities, with the creation of the First People’s Hall and the History Hall.[vi] These separate halls symbolically demonstrated that the Aboriginal story was still seen as separate from the Canadian narrative. By keeping them separate, the museum failed to provide a comprehensive view of Canadian history. Now, the museum is changing the History Hall into the Canadian History Hall, which is due to be complete by 2017 (in time for Canada’s 150th birthday). They state that “[t]he new Hall will tell the story of Canada and its people from the dawn of human habitation to the present day, through events, experiences and people that reflect and have shaped the country’s history and uniqueness.”[vii] It is the most comprehensive exhibit that they have worked on to date. This exhibit will give agency to many voices that have been previously marginalized in Canadian history. Dean Oliver, the museum’s Director of Research, stated that Canada’s First Nations will play more of a prominent role in the new space.[viii]
Further examples of democratic principles are now seen in museum vision statements throughout the country. To give a few examples, the Canadian Museum Association states that inclusiveness is a cornerstone of their vision and express that they “embrace inclusion by respecting diversity and seeking different perspectives and opinions.”[ix] Similarly, the Burlington Museum in Ontario conveys that, “Burlington is a community that knows and celebrates its diverse cultural heritage…”[x] The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta articulates that it wants “more people to experience art and culture more often”[xi] These visions are especially important because in some sectors of the Canadian population “cultural insecurity and nostalgia for ‘Old Canada’” are reducing tolerance and compassion. [xii] By having museums become havens where every Canadian feels included, not only in the narrative, but also in the creation of the exhibits themselves, these archaic attitudes can be dispelled.
[i] Policy Horizons Canada. “Diversity, Identity and the Social Cohesion Advantage,” (accessed July 15, 2015)
[ii] Government of Canada. "Canadian Multiculturalism: An Inclusive Citizenship,” (accessed July 25, 2015)
[iii] The Museum Act, S.C. 1990, C.3, (accessed July 20, 2015)
[iv] Ashley, Susan. “State Authority and the Public Sphere: Ideas on the Changing Role of the Museum as a Canadian Social Institution.” Museum and Society 3. No. 1 (March, 2005): 5-17.
[v] Stanley, D. “Introduction: The Social Effects of Culture.” Canadian Journal of Communication 31, no. 1 (2006)
[vi] Although these histories were treated as separate entities conjuring up the notion of Canadian history and the history of the “other”, it is worth noting that the Canadian Civilization Museum (now the Canadian Museum of History) took great care to include Aboriginal community members in the process of creating the narrative found in the First People’s Hall. Dean, David, and Peter E. Rider. “Museums, Nation and Political History in the Australian National Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.” Museum and Society 3, no. 1. (2005): 35-50.
[vii] The Canadian Museum of History. “The Canadian History Hall-Coming in July, 2017!” (accessed July 20, 2015)
[viii] Unlisted Author, “Canadian Museum of History Plans Revealed,” CBC News, July 30, 2013.
[ix] Canadian Museum Association, “CMA Strategic Plan 2015-2018.”
[x] Museums of Burlington, “Our Vision,” (accessed July 20, 2015)
[xi] Glenbow Museum. “About Us.” (accessed August 4, 2015)
[xii] Jenson, Jane. “Identifying the Links: Social Cohesion and Culture.” 141.
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