WHITCHURCH-STOUFFVILLE, Ont. — From the outside, Whitchurch-Stouffville Museum and Community Centre looks like a modest wooden building in the suburban outskirts of Toronto. But inside, visitors can catch a glimpse of a large historic Indigenous community thriving before the arrival of colonial settlers.

The museum lets visitors experience the archeological site through a virtual reality tour, where they stand in front of a large screen inside a smaller version a longhouse, decorated with sweetgrass, corn and fur. The year-long exhibit opened in July and shows a digital representation of the archeological site that’s described as a significant part of Huron-Wendat culture and identity.  

“(Archeologists) have referred to it as the Manhattan of that period,” said Krista Rauchenstein, the program co-ordinator giving a tour of the exhibit, which is named after the Jean-Baptiste Lainé site.

The area was previously known as the Mantle site and was renamed after an elder of the Huron-Wendat Nation, who was also a decorated World War II veteran. The site was excavated in present day Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ont.

“It’s all really amazing stuff that we hadn’t seen in our archaeological record up until now,” said William Carter, one of the researchers behind the exhibit.

Carter was part of the team that found over 150,000 artifacts on the Jean-Baptiste Lainé site, which he says researchers date as far back as the 1500s. They also found evidence that there were more than 1,500 people living in 100 longhouses that are about the size of two buses. It was once home to the Wendat community, but there’s evidence of many other Indigenous communities also inhabited the seven-acre site.

“We need to recognize that there were highly sophisticated communities here before we immigrated to Canada, or the notion of Canada,” Carter said.

The 3D tour, directed by a video-game-like console, offers a high definition picture of a longhouse on a bright sunny day. The digital recreation portrays multiple beds, fires burning, dishes lying around and dozens of crops and meat hanging from the ceiling. Large smoke clouds hover around longhouses, and a walk outside through the bushes takes participants to present-day Stouffville Creek.  

Meanwhile, a sound system plays faded audio of people talking and laughing. Carter said this was intentional so the user is “engulfed” by the environment through all the senses.

He says virtual exhibits like this give visitors a first-hand account of a community that isn’t well recorded. He notes that written reports from European colonizers were often racist and Euro-centric. So his team worked with the Huron-Wendat Nation to “fill in the blanks” and correct what was recorded in history.

The Wendat community lived on the site for at least 20 years before resettling between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay area, according to the exhibit. Research shows that colonialism had an impact on the Wendat’s trade networks, along with increased conflict and epidemic diseases that drove the community to the present-day Wendake Reserve in Quebec.

Carter said this exhibit is just one example of “digital Indigeneity,” a concept that refers to efforts to preserve Indigenous history through technology. He said through 3D representations, Indigenous communities can find commonality and links between each other’s cultures.

“With this technology, the sky is the limit,” said Mélanie Vincent, exhibit project manager for the Huron-Wendat Nation.

“This allows us to spread to the world what our artifacts and our heritage is,” she said. 

Vincent said the Huron-Wendat have more than 2,000 recorded archeological sites in Canada. The Huron-Wendat Nation approved everything displayed in the exhibit, she adds.

“We’re really proud that our heritage can be known, even though we are now located in Quebec, we are very proud to take care of our heritage and display it to the world,” she said.

Matthew Coulthard, 21, is a history student at the University of Toronto completing a co-op at the museum. He’s writing a research report on the artifacts found in the exhibit and how the culture of the Huron-Wendat shifted when they settled in Quebec.

“It’s really impressive, the history that comes alive through these artifacts. The culture you can hear and see…it’s all there and it’s first-hand right in front of you,” he said.

If you go…

-The Whitchurch-Stouffville Museum and Community Centre is located five minutes east of Highway 404 or a 10 minute drive from the Aurora GO station.

-Tickets are $6.00 for adults, $4.00 for children and $16 for a family of four

-Open Tuesday-Saturday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and you can call the museum to book a tour

Lidia Abraha, The Canadian Press

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