There’s growing concern that developers who unexpectedly uncover ancient aboriginal sites quietly discard archaeological artifacts and perhaps even human remains to dodge the cost and hassle of obeying provincial law.
B.C.’s Heritage Conservation Act makes the property owner responsible for archaeological impact assessments on undiscovered heritage sites and pay all related costs before construction.
But some observers say it’s time to revisit that requirement because the high costs deter proper reporting and compliance with the legislation.
“What happens now is artifacts get found on a project and they’re real quick to put them in a dump truck and get them the hell out of there,” Delta artifacts trader Tony Hardie said. “They don’t want to have a bill, have a delay or have to deal with all the politics and red tape of having the First Nation involved.”
Metro Vancouver’s aboriginal relations committee voted Wednesday to urge the province to ease or eliminate the burden of archaeological costs for private property owners.
The province so far insists it’s sticking to the “developer-pay principle.”
But Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew, the committee’s vice-chair, calls that a mistake.
“If you want to increase the possibility of protecting archaeological heritage then you need to motivate property owners to do the right thing in terms of reporting,” Drew said.
He said the current law has good goals but the huge downside of extra costs and delay actually spurs land owners to keep quiet and toss rare finds in the dump truck for disposal.
Manitoba and Alberta already pay the costs of archaeological studies and interment of found human remains on behalf of property owners.
Ontario property owners who uncover remains can ask to have their costs reimbursed if it’s deemed an undue financial burden.
A Metro report says offering the same option in B.C. would ensure human remains are treated with respect and dignity and the province would be able to ensure remains aren’t covered up, concealed or otherwise mismanaged by property owners.
Other options, according to Metro, are for the province to give property owners a tax credit to offset their heritage preservation costs.
Archaeological expenses can be huge – $400,000 in the case of one private property in south Vancouver in the Marpole Midden area, $300,000 for the owners of a Kamloops winery and $35,000 in the case of an elderly Parksville couple trying to get clearance to build a one-storey house.
Part of the challenge for property owners and developers, Drew said, is that those who try to follow the rules can still face long delays because the province doesn’t have enough staff to administer the Heritage Conservation Act.
“Provincially, at the moment there’s three people for the whole province.”
Drew noted it’s not just aboriginal heritage that can trigger conservation requirements and costs. Other heritage features covered under the act include old pioneer buildings, shipwrecks and even natural features like undiscovered caves.
The issue is also before the courts.
Victoria resident Wendi MacKay sued the province for $600,000 in costs, delays and lost value to her property after being ordered by the province to do archaeological work before she could build an addition to her house.
B.C. Supreme Court last year found in her favour – on the basis the legislation didn’t give provincial staff the power to make such an order – but the government is appealing.
A spokesman with the forests and lands ministry said the province is committed to protecting heritage resources, but no change in policy is under consideration.
“With the significant presence of First Nations and the extensive history of B.C., property owners and developers need to understand the potential of finding artifacts and archaeological sites when conducting new development,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.