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There had never been an archaeological project in New Brunswick like the Jemseg Crossing dig. As winter descended on the province in December 1996, water levels in the Jemseg River were rising, the soil was becoming saturated and the ground was freezing.

At a time when archaeologists put away their tools and wait for a new season, the members of the Jemseg Crossing team began to assemble movable garages as shelters, and strung heavy electrical cables across the site to allow the use of heat lamps to thaw the frozen ground. They installed sump pumps in the holes to deal with the rising water.

“We were just getting started at that point,” Susan Blair said. “The winter then was the big issue and we came up with ways that have never been done before. We bought those silvery garages and they’re a little over two meters wide so we would make tunnels of those, line three of them up from end to end.

“We have people working on this project who are from First Nations communities who have had all kinds of training on all sorts of things, so we have ticketed electricians, we have carpenters, people with all sorts of knowledge and experience and so they’re designing all of these sort of processes and systems to deal with this winter work.”

Meanwhile, Pat Polchies was recruiting as many Wolastoqiyik workers as possible, and then co-ordinating their work side by side with archaeologists.

“So the project itself became quite large and I’m not going to say difficult to manage but it was complicated,” he said. “Certainly complicated mostly because they wanted us to work through the winter and get things done that way.”

The engineers were adamant that the dig should secure the footprints for the support structures for the bridge, but Chris Turnbull and the team on the ground had been told by the provincial government that it wouldn’t allow that to happen if there was evidence of burial sites there.

Polchies also understood that the dig was controversial in the Aboriginal community. He knew some people in his community were opposed to the dig and opposed to archaeology in general. He had a different view. He saw archaeology as a methodology applied to understanding the past. And that methodology could be applied with respect and the information used to benefit of the people who are still here.

One of his great uncles had lived at Jemseg, so for Polchies, the history was a lot closer than many people thought. But it continued to be controversial and he was accused by some of having been co-opted.

“I wasn’t,” he said. “I had a genuine concern for the development and understanding Jemseg further as to what it was.”

Despite the outreach to the Wolastoqiyik communities, the dig became a political issue. At one point a group of Mi’kmaq warriors arrived demanding that the dig be shut down.

“So the Mi’kmaq warriors came up and we had a Maliseet elder stand up in the middle of all this and said ‘We didn’t call you in fact we really don’t need you here down at the site so we’ll politely ask you to go home now,’” Polchies recalled.

Susan Blair recalls both dealing with a scientific project beneath portable garages in sub-zero conditions, and at the same time building a relationship with the communities.

“We can solve technical issues but we needed to be able to – not build trust because I think trust is something that’s way down the road – but at least build a confidence that people could know what was happening and have a say.”

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Then in the spring of 1997, just as winter was receding, the team found evidence of red ochre, a mineral-based pigment associated with burial sites. Susan Blair and the team decided that it might be a burial site. They couldn’t prove that it was not, therefore they should proceed as if it were a burial site.

“We had reached an agreement that if there is a possibility of human burial that we would shut down,” Chris Turnbull recalled. “And that’s what happened. Because of our acid soils, bone material doesn’t last very long at all, but a patch of red ochre is frequently associated with burial sites. And so at that point we said, ‘Look, we made an agreement, we’re going to have to follow through on it.’ Then in subsequent meetings we indeed did. It was very much of a hinge point. The province had said, ‘Yes we agree,’ and it happened, and so plans had to change.

“At that point DOT was able to find an alternative route with a slight curve. When you go down there there’s a slight curve in the bridge and highway. So they were able to meet up with their newly built section going towards Moncton and bypass the archaeological site. “

Pat Polchies was disappointed when he realized the project had to end. He wasn’t convinced that a burial site had been found within one of the footprints, but he agreed that the project needed to stop.

“I say ‘burial’ because that’s what the other people on the site agreed it was. I didn’t. It was mostly from being there and a spiritual feeling, I wasn’t certain this was a burial. It was certainly significant enough to shut us down.

“That was that, close enough to a burial by archaeological standards. Ultimately they did move the bridge, the design, the alignment. The engineers had to go back to table and move it to an area that’s already been disturbed. This was part of the reason why I didn’t know the validity of the exercise to begin with, because surely the old Jemseg bridge had disturbed a whole bunch of stuff and where they were proposing this route, you were less likely to get a accurate picture of any heritage sort of site that might be there because it was already disturbed.

“But certainly we knew that the footprints for the support structures for the route that they were proposing would have been on what most people considered a burial site, so they moved it.

“I remember saying that I, on behalf of Kingsclear First Nation, I did not think that was a burial, and I remember Karen Perley from Tobique saying ‘I think it’s a burial,’ and immediately deciding I had to agree with Karen, though I was going to make an argument that it wasn’t. She may well be very well right. I may be right wrong, I just didn’t feel it and I said that, but once Karen said that that’s the way she felt, I said, ‘I’ve got your back on that all the way, if that’s what you feel it is.’ And so Susan had to make that decision of shutting down what we were doing. I would have loved to have seen the work continue without disturbing the burial site, to develop a full picture, a fuller archaeological picture of what exactly Jemseg was.

“Unfortunately when it came to an end it was pretty much just pack our stuff up and go home, that was pretty much how it ended. Now Susan had a great deal of work afterwards compiling their report, discussing all the artifacts and materials that we had found, so some stuff carried on for quite a while afterwards.”

That work involved the interpretation of what they had found during the arduous winter dig, and for Polchies and those reaching back to the past, that may have been the most important aspect of the whole project.

(With files from William Cumming, Troy Glover, Alyssa Gould, Sekou Hendrickson, Vincent Jiang, Mitchell Peardon, Tiziana Zevallos.)

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