Sorting “Natives” from “Indians”: Interrogating Historic Burials in the Catholic Burying Ground on the Dartmouth Common (1835-1865)

This essay examines the narratives presented in “The Story of Dartmouth” concerning the Mi’kmaq allegedly buried at the Catholic Cemetery on Geary Street, near Alderney Drive, within the Dartmouth Common.

I concur with the author’s assertion that critical thinking about the sources and potential impacts of “Indian stories” is essential. This principle extends beyond indigenous narratives to encompass historical accounts in general.

In Canada, many efforts termed “decolonized” paradoxically perpetuate colonization, reinforcing a framework where sovereignty is solely vested in a foreign crown and its representatives, marginalizing the popular sovereignty of those labeled citizens but effectively treated as subjects. This dynamic is especially poignant for indigenous communities, who often face restrictions on meaningful self-governance, subject to oversight by inherently colonial institutions such as the RCMP, operating under the auspices of the Dominion government in Ottawa.

The acknowledgment of an RCMP officer providing insights into “stolen histories” is noteworthy in itself. The irony of relying on a member of a federal paramilitary organization, historically tasked with displacing indigenous peoples to facilitate colonization, as an authority on stolen histories is not lost on me.

No doubt there are aspects of Martin’s work in the Story of Dartmouth based on little more than legend and lore — he admits as much throughout, relying on the stories of various “old timers” in order to build a more complete picture of what would otherwise remain undocumented, time out of memory. Nova Scotia as a province, let alone its municipal parts, had no archives as such until the late 1920s, many documents have since been lost and primary sources can be difficult to pin down.

If anything I see Martin’s Story of Dartmouth, printed not for profit but to record as much of the memory of his hometown as possible, as his way to fight back against a kind of totalitarian wave happening at the time. With so many of the hallmarks of a totalitarian wave from my perspective that match the current one, it led to a kind of epiphany for me in terms of how I relate not only to “old timers” and “history” but also our present circumstances.

“Was the book cover, the claim to [Mi’kmaq] burials in his book, and the inscription on the monument the result of confirmation bias on his part? It certainly seems so, but we may never know for sure because he never fully disclosed what inspired him to invest such effort into the story of indigenous burials. Surely, it was not only for tourism purposes and there were not enough copies of The Story of Dartmouth published to make a huge profit by telling the story, if that was a goal. While some will say he told an indigenous story that he had not lived, I suggest he lived the story through his own imagination and writing and inspired others to do the same”.

I suggest Martin grew up at a time, in the shadow of “Confederation”, wherein the relationship of the Mi’kmaq and other Nova Scotians changed significantly, as did the relationships between the colonies themselves.

That there was only one Indian Residential school in all the Maritimes compared to the dozens in the Provinces to the west, some instituted before Confederation, is one indication. That the singular Shubenacadie school was constructed almost immediately after Nova Scotia’s Legislative Council (Senate) was dissolved in the late 1920s in what appears to have been another intense period of Canadian Colonization, and not only as it concerns indigenous people, is another.

Martin makes note throughout The Story of Dartmouth of the many skeletons found in what is now downtown Dartmouth, during various excavations and construction projects, no doubt, at least in my mind, that some of these must have been Mi’kmaq. That one of these sites, near five corners at Portland Street and Prince Albert Road, also happened to be the site of the first “massacre” of early settlers might help explain the conduct of the Mi’kmaq at the time, had it been the burial ground of their ancestors.

Martin also notes the extent to which the Mi’kmaq were part of “Dartmouth Society”, in many cases it seems to have been little more than a process of pushing them progressively further out of town, as land became more valuable. On the other hand, previous to Confederation there are stories like that of the Toneys, specifically Peter, who it is asserted was “a leader of the Mi’kmaq at Dartmouth”. That he participated in canoe races and harbor regattas, that he was “a winner in one of these contests” and that “the part of Hawthorne Street between Prince Albert Road and the Canal stream used to be called Toney Street after this well-known Dartmouth family of that vicinity” seems to indicate that at one time there was at least the inklings of a kindred spirit between Mi’kmaq and other Dartmouthians, among other scattered fragments that relate to other groups.

Canadian confederation seems to have brought about a degeneration in this regard, no doubt spurred on by the great Canadian land grab, which must have hit the Mi’kmaq especially hard, having survived the initial colonization only to have to suffer another.

Although I don’t necessarily agree with the framework or all of the assertions contained within, I appreciate the sensitivity towards the topic of history, indigenous or otherwise. I believe interrogating one’s biases is always a useful exercise, perhaps especially when it comes to the ideological frame.

Whether the intent of the author was to delegitimize The Story of Dartmouth as a source, I’m not sure, but they’ve engaged in a rigorous examination of many historical records and created a valuable addition to what is a very narrow field, scholarship on the topic of Dartmouth — to which I’m sure Martin would be pleased to see is occupying a new generation of scholars and historians, no matter their perspective.

“This research disrupts a colonial narrative about settlers and hundreds of “Indians” inscribed on a monument as part of a non-indigenous tourism scheme to raise money and clean up the abandoned Catholic Burying Ground on the Dartmouth Common. Many Natives of Ireland and others, not Natives of North America, are identified by a detailed analysis of handwritten death records and other sources. They were all but forgotten when the municipality took control of the cemetery in 1975 without a copy of the church records. This left a gap in public memory that allowed variations of an “old Indian burial ground” narrative to evolve from burials in the ground (1962) to burials in a mound (2010). The findings are relevant to the national project of Truth and Reconciliation and serve as a cautionary tale about the importance of seeking truth before reconciliation. This research will be of interest to Irish researchers and descendants of those who died; residents of Halifax Regional Municipality who own the cemetery in trust; government administrators, planners, and surveyors; Catholic organizations in control of historic records; and to social, legal and indigenous researchers who grapple with constructed “Indian” identities as a way of decolonizing the story of Canada.”

Sutherland, Heather. “Sorting “Natives” from “Indians”: Interrogating Historic Burials in the Catholic Burying Ground on the Dartmouth Common (1835-1865)”, Masters Thesis, 2018. Saint Mary’s University.