A Métis burial ground in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., appropriated by non-Indigenous Canadians more than 200 years ago was returned to the Métis community in July, following the transfer of the land and buildings occupied by St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church to the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO).
For more than a hundred years, St. John’s, located at 136 John Street, stood on a plot of land beside the now-submerged Fort Creek as downtown Sault Ste. Marie grew up around it.
But decades before the land was sold to the Anglican Church of Canada in 1901, it had been a graveyard, first for the local Métis people, and later for the North West Company outpost erected near where the Fort Creek empties into the St. Mary’s River.
In 2016, when St. John’s decided to merge with St. Matthew’s Anglican Church to create a new parish, Emmaus Anglican Church, the diocese decided to return the property to its traditional owners.
The transfer was first suggested more than a year ago by Archdeacon Harry Huskins, executive officer of the diocese of Algoma, who was aware of the pending merger and knew about the property’s former life as a burial ground.
According to Huskins, the land’s previous use made him and others in the diocese uncomfortable with the notion of selling the land commercially. Any grave markers that may have been erected at the time of the last burials had long since disappeared, but ground-penetrating radar detected four intact gravesites remaining in the property.
“We weren’t about to go and sell [St. John’s] to a developer, or anything else,” said Huskins. “It would be out of the question, as a burial ground.”
According to Huskins, the site’s use as a burial ground goes back to the fur trade, when the Métis emerged as a distinct group descended from local Indigenous nations and French and Scottish fur traders. Located where Lake Superior pours down a long chute of rapids into Lake Huron, the town that came to be known as Sault Ste. Marie had for centuries been one of the key crossroads in the Great Lakes region.
But with the destruction of the North West Company fort in the War of 1812, the merger of the North West Company with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the end of the fur trade in the 19th century, the land fell into disuse. Huskins says the last burial can be dated to 1865, and based on photographs taken around the same time the Anglican church acquired the land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 20th century, he believes it had ceased to function as an actual burial ground.
Indeed, Huskins believes it is possible the Anglicans who erected St. John’s were not even aware they were building their church over a graveyard.
But whatever the circumstances under which the church was constructed, the Rev. Pamela Rayment, the last incumbent at St. John’s and now incumbent at Emmaus, said the current parishioners (several of whom, include Rayment, are themselves Métis) have been happy to see their former building given to the MNO.
“I am most grateful for the generous and hopeful response from the members of the former congregation. They have been supportive of the transfer and many have expressed that this is the most faithful move that could have come about for the property,” Rayment said when contacted by email about the transfer.
A comment from the MNO was not available at press time.
Though the church no longer functions as a parish, the building will not be deconsecrated. The MNO has asked the diocese to continue offering occasional services there for Métis Anglicans, which Rayment said she hopes to be involved in.
Huskins said the act is an example of “tangible reconciliation” for the diocese, and diocesan Bishop Anne Germond agreed.
“I think [the transfer] is exciting for the diocese,” she said. “I firmly believe that reconciliation is something that happens right where we are—right in our homes, our communities, our congregations.”