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The four historic Ring Houses at the University of Alberta will soon be taken down and removed from Saskatchewan Drive.

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This includes the home of U of A founder Henry Marshall Tory, the oldest presidential residence on a campus in Canada. On Oct. 1, 2021, the U of A declared these houses were “saved” and “preserved” but, in fact, they are to be dismantled. The new owner, Primavera Development, plans to reconstruct the exteriors at an unknown location and time, along with two east campus houses, to form the core of an arts hub.

The heritage value of the houses, however, will be lost forever. There is small hope that this decision will be reversed, as was the case with Rutherford House, ordered bulldozed by the U of A in 1969. The preservation of that home was aided by the work of the Canadian Federation of University Women and by the fact that premier Peter Lougheed and spouse Jeanne were graduates of the U of A. There are no graduates of the U of A in the Jason Kenney cabinet.

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The process of erasing these houses began when the U of A quietly allowed them to deteriorate and failed to recognize them as valuable heritage sites like Rutherford House. The historical walking tour of the campus that featured these homes was removed from the U of A website sometime in 2021, along with the interpretive panels outside Ring House 1.

Along with PhD student research assistant Connor J. Thompson, I requested access to the interiors for research on their history but we were denied access. The U of A claims the houses do not serve teaching and research activities, and when we tried to demonstrate they did, permission for these activities was denied. Only when ownership was transferred to Ken Cantor and Primavera was access graciously permitted, revealing the interiors had been neglected for some time.

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The U of A has no immediate plans for the green space once the houses are removed. (It has never been explained: why the hurry to return the land to green space?) I propose that it be returned to the Pâpâsces. This was their land until they were obliged to locate their reserve to the south, a reserve they were fraudulently dispossessed of in the late 1880s through a campaign led by Edmonton Bulletin editor Frank Oliver. That they could choose the site for their reserve, to be theirs in perpetuity, were solemn promises of Treaty 6. Let us lead with purpose, show that we are serious about Indigenizing the U of A and about acknowledging we are located on Treaty 6 territory .

The last Pâpâsces member known to have lived on this land (River Lot 5) was Mary Foley, a niece of the chief. She was married to Illinois-born soldier, miner and freighter, John Ashen. Their first child, also named John, was born in 1877 at Tail Creek, the buffalo-hunting community. We can glean details of Mary and her family from records such as Métis scrip. She and her are John Jr. both received scrip, as did many of the Pâpâsces.

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The family dispersed, like the rest of the Pâpâsces whom Oliver and other settlers petitioned were detrimental to the prosperity of Edmonton. In 1889, Mary and family moved to the US John Jr. served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was killed in action in France in 1918, age 41. In 1930, Mary, age 74, was living in Sacramento, Calif., with her attorney are Alex J. Ashen and family, including Mary’s granddaughter Ruth, a mystery writer.

River lot 5, comprising 258 acres, was purchased in 1882 from John Ashen Sr. for $3,000 by Arthur D. Patton, a young man from Ontario said to be working in the interest of investors from Kingston. In 1885, the land was acquired by Isaac Simpson, a Kingston land broker. The land was purchased in 1907 from Simpson’s widow and daughter for $150,000 (over $4 million today). In 1909, Premier Rutherford boasted that the land was already worth twice the amount paid for it. Imagine how much it is worth today.

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The Ring House land, comprising a fragment of the original Pâpâsces land, should be returned to them. They should take the lead in deciding the future of this northwest corner of campus. The Ring Houses could form part of an urban land grant to the Pâpâsces, and be incorporated into a new initiative for a national urban park, which can fund a cultural site on the river valley to interpret Pâpâsces history and the many stories braided together in this significant place.

This would be an important step toward meaningful reconciliation and redress for the Pâpâsces. As the houses were sold for only $4, surely the land can be returned to the Pâpâsces.

Sarah Carter is professor and Henry Marshall Tory Chair, department of history, classics and religion, and faculty of native studies at the University of Alberta.

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