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Principle

Discovery (whether of human remains or otherwise), as part of an archaeological research project under permit, should be reported by the archaeologist to the authorities who authorized the research.

Matters are more sensitive when a discovery is made by accident. A typical example is during excavation for a construction project. The law generally distinguishes between discoveries of human remains and other artifacts but, in both cases, there are several common features. In the event of accidental discovery of human remains, the law throughout Canada is strict. One must:

  • halt activities,
  • secure the area and
  • call the police.

The rationale is simple: the police must determine whether the site is a possible crime scene and gather evidence. If the police later determine instead that the site is "archaeological," they will contact the relevant authorities accordingly.

But what if the items discovered are not human remains, but artifacts? Under the laws of some (but not all) provinces and territories:

  • Discovery of archaeological objects (other than human remains) requires the same measures (i.e., protecting the site and notifying authorities). All provinces and territories except Ontario insist that the site be protected automatically, and make it an offence to disturb the site of an archaeological find. (In Ontario, the minister must officially designate the site for protection first.)

  • Notification procedures are different. Half the provincial statutes include a similar requirement to report finds (in Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta), but the laws of the other provinces and of the territories are silent on that point. Where notification is required, it is not sent to the police, but rather to the provincial/territorial archaeological authority.

Finally, if human remains or archaeological objects are discovered, it is good practice (although not legally obligatory) for the archaeologist to consult with nearby populations who are most likely to be descended from the people whose remains or property have been discovered.

In every province except Quebec and Ontario, archaeological discoveries are the property of the provincial Crown.