Hmm, I just noticed today is the first anniversary of this blog. Mind you, it was a slow and intermittent affair at first but with more regular posting has come steady increase in readership.
But you know who else had a birthday on April 20th?
With that in mind, what better way to celebrate than by checking out the firestorm brewing on the Englishman River, where some landowners, perhaps wilfully ignorant, have had an unfortunate series of events transpire regarding an archaeological site on their property. The Archaeology Branch has responded to the story with a terse memo.
A little background to start:
All archaeological sites in B.C. dating to before 1846 A.D. are protected under the Heritage Conservation Act. This is true whether or not they are known to the Archaeology Branch or unknown and unrecorded. In some ways, then, it is not relevant that the site under these people’s house was first recorded, I am told, in 1975. Even if it was first discovered by the application of a backhoe in April 2010, it would be accorded the same protection under the law. The fact that the landowners claim to have not known about the site until recently is an interesting issue that does not really materially affect the facts of this case. And, under the standard procedures in place, they are indeed responsible for paying the costs of the archaeological investigations, in this case reported to be $35,000. Whether or not they have the money also doesn’t affect the facts of the case – incidentally, these people who self-portray as poor and unemployed are finding archaeology because they are building a new house on their property, which must be costing them several hundred thousand dollars.
So, these facts may not actually alter the legal responsibilities, but they do however very strongly affect the way this issue is seen to be unfolding.
When stories like these break, I always make sure to read the comments associated with them. They are a window into the vox populi and reveal just how much work remains to be done to educate the public on the value of archaeological sites, and on the legal circumstances surrounding the relationship between the archaeological record and their property rights and their title to property.
As usual, the comments are not pretty. So much ignorance and racism – and such poor judgment by the CBC to allow those comments to stand. I’d like to think some of this is fuelled or accentuated by the apparent injustice of the little old lady confronted with a bill for 35,000 – but surely such sentiments do not arise from thin air.
But we do need to address the trigger issue here: landowners are held financially responsible for archaeological remains on their property. They have a general due diligence to find out about these remains, but as noted above, the remains are protected regardless of whether they are already known and recorded, or not. So a simple call to the ministry might or might not get you a full answer.
Again, some background is warranted:
Sites are recorded both on a paper record, dating back to about 1960, and electronically. Many sites were recorded before computer mapping and GIS were available and before the current 1:20,000 scale topographic maps were made. This means that site locations and especially site boundaries may not be completely accurate. On a 1:50,000 paper map, 1 cm on the map = 50,000 cm, or 500 metres in the real world. This means a one millimetre error of plotting a site equals a 50 metre error, twice the size of most city lots. A one millimetre error is the thickness of a pencil line, more or less. Add to this the fact that many sites are polygons, and not points, and that the entire boundary of the polygon has these potentially large errors, one direction or the other, or both. Another legacy issue are sites which were plotted before the introduction of Global Positioning, or GPS, handheld units which via satellite triangulation, can put your position to within a few metres. In the older days, sites were plotted onto maps using dead reckoning you might say, and then a latitude and longititude were derived from the plot itself: a double source of error. This latitude and longitude would then often be the source of the entry into the GIS. A program a few years back helped with some digital hygiene on that, but if the site itself was not revisited since the earlier days – and many haven’t been – the boundaries and location themselves may be suspect.
So the natural response of commenters at the CBC – “put these sites on land title” – is legitimately hard and problematic to actually accomplish. Is an error of commission preferable to an error of omission? Or should landowners be educated in the need to do their own homework and find out what the legal encumbrances are on their own property? In this respect, I bet a lot of the CBC commenters are of the right-wing “man-up and take personal responsibility” school of thought and so, well, they should live up to their credo and take responsibility for educating themselves about their own property. (Incidentally, the CBC reporter embarrassed herself with her factually incorrect comments on the factually incorrect story and the later invisible correction to the text of the story: shoddy journalism. She also refers to the recent Cadboro Bay case without mentioning that the landowner in that case got off completely scot-free. Some penalty there.)
This is no different than the ‘call before you dig’ idea: you can elect not to call, and you run the risk of getting electrocuted to death. Your call.
A second issue is the core part of the story which alleges that a 4,000$ estimate turned into a 35,000$ bill with the landowner not knowing anything about this. Not enough information to fully comment, but this does not pass the smell test and I suspect the landowner knew a lot more than they are saying. In particular, the owner has lived there for 40 years, at the mouth of the Englishman River, on a site recorded 35 years ago, in the heart of one of the most densely populated part of aboriginal B.C., and supposedly knows nothing about an archaeological site under her own house? Or the possibility of one? So close to the Craig Bay fiasco? I find that incredible, and ludicrous, and if true, pathetic.
A third issue which seems to me to be important, is the practice by which the landowner is held responsible for the costs of the excavation. On principle, archaeology is a public good and part of our collective heritage – yes, collective, not just aboriginal – and as such the public should pay for its management. I actually believe this! This is part of the collective heritage that was celebrated at the Olympics, for example – and I don’t recall too much “send the box of culture and a bill back to Wayne” comments then. Is it going to happen? Well, probably not – because, I might add, people of the same political stripe as the CBC commenters resist government involvement in such things, and the government panders to this by restricting the funds available for archaeological management in this province. Almost all archaeology done in this province is private sector archaeology conducted by for-profit firms.
One solution would be a small development tax which was put into a pool: say 1/10th of one percent of all development costs went into an archaeology pool, regardless of whether archaeology concerns existed at that particular development or not. This money would then be withdrawn for specific projects such as this one, so that the landowner was not unduly burdened. This would also create an arms-length relationship between the developer and the consulting archaeologists. This relationship, current case study aside, far more often falls into a perception that the archaeologist will keep the developer (who is putting bread on their table) happy by minimizing the amount of work to be done or by otherwise accommodating the client in the hopes of a long-standing financial relationship. The Archaeology Branch of the BC Government has essentially no field presence and is under tight travel restrictions, meaning the information they have is the information they are given by the interested parties – an institutionalized weakness that did not happen by accident but was a political decision. Furthermore, the only formal ethical guidelines constraining archaeologists are voluntary.
Hence we have a strange mixture in BC of a strong law, many talented archaeologists, some ethically-challenged ones, powerfully motivated but politically unpowerful (yes, unpowerful despite what you hear on C-FAX) First Nations, an unprincipled laissez-faire government, a (deliberately and strategically) underfunded Archaeology Branch, voluntary archaeological ethics, and an under-educated public with a broad streak of racist resentment and settler guilt. The Englishmen River case exemplifies many of these underlying themes in the practice of archaeology in B.C.