Nova Scotia

Archaeologist mourns upcoming loss of 'state-of-the-art' lab in Dartmouth

Unfortunately for human history buffs in Atlantic Canada, a decision by the previous federal government to scrap an archaeology lab in Nova Scotia just won't go away, despite hopes that a change in government would bury it for good.

Jonathan Fowler hoped Trudeau government would reverse decision to close 'purpose-built' archaeology facility

Professionals and students from across Atlantic Canada make regular use of the laboratory. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC News)

As any archaeologist will tell you, you can't ignore the past. 

Unfortunately for human history buffs in Atlantic Canada, a decision by the previous federal government to scrap a "state-of-the-art" archaeology lab in Nova Scotia just won't go away, despite hopes that a change in government would bury it for good.

In 2012, Parks Canada announced it would merge six archaeology labs from across the country into one, and consolidate their collections in a new facility in Gatineau, Que. just outside of Ottawa.

At the time, Mi'kmaq and Acadian groups — as well as numerous academics and researchers from Atlantic Canada — expressed their concerns with the decision, especially given that the custom-built lab in Dartmouth, N.S., had just opened three years earlier.

They were under the impression the plan "was finally dead" when Trudeau's Liberal government was voted in, said Jonathan Fowler, archaeologist at Saint Mary's University, "but it's back. Or maybe it had never left."

A range of colonial-era artifacts recovered by Saint Mary’s University students and members of the public during archaeological excavations at Grand-Pré National Historic Site in 2010. (Jonathan Fowler)

The rationale

Audrey Champagne, a media relations officer with Parks Canada, said in an email the relocation plan is the best way to ensure the "maintenance and security" of its artifact collection.

Many of the storage facilities currently in use across the country are aging, she said, and require "significant investments" to bring them up to standard.

Members of the Nova Scotia Archaeology Society touring the conservation laboratory in the Dartmouth facility in May, 2017. (Vanessa Smith)

Champagne estimates approximately 60 per cent of the collection "is currently under threat" due to environmental conditions at the facilities as well as security concerns.

She said the move, which is scheduled to begin in 2018 and be completed by 2020, will cost approximately $45 million. No jobs will be eliminated, Champagne said.

'Too late'

Fowler, past president of the Nova Scotia Archaeology Society, said he doesn't think many members of parliament from this region are aware of the relocation plans.

An 18th century clay pipe recovered from a recent excavation. Pipe such as these provide excellent evidence for dating archaeological sites. (Jonathan Fowler)

He added he's keen to let them know how "damaging" this move will be when it comes to the capacity of local people to "tell our stories here."

Bill Casey, the Liberal MP for Cumberland-Colchester said he met with Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna approximately one week ago to voice his concerns.

But "it may be too late" to save the Nova Scotia lab, he said.

Access to Mi'kmaq artifacts

It's a "backward thing to do in today's Canada," Fowler said, at a time when many of us are "trying to come to grips with the consequences of our colonial history."

To remove Indigenous and Acadian artifacts from the region — and remove "reasonable access" to those artifacts — is "ethically problematic," he said.

Chief Wilbert Marshall with the Potlotek First Nation said in an email that he is in "formal" consultations with Parks Canada about the relocation plans, in his capacity as head of the culture, heritage and archaeology portfolio for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs

The collections "are significant, non-renewable and sacred parts of our cultural property," he said, and they "should not be moved from our traditional territory." 

'Problematic' loans system

Marshall emphasized that his goal in the negotiations is to find a way to continue to care for Indigenous archaeological materials and records right here in Atlantic Canada.

View of the interior of the archaeology lab showing part of the archaeological collection in storage. The collection is comprised of over 1 million artifacts from Atlantic Canadian archaeological sites. (Nova Scotia Archaeology Society)

Champagne said Parks Canada is committed to finding "innovative" ways to accommodate Indigenous groups, including a loans system or transfer of title in some cases.

Fowler said Parks Canada's promise of a loan system is "problematic" because of the inefficiency of the process, the staff required to coordinate the program, and the possibility of damage to the artifacts through shipping.

'Beautiful' facility

The Parks Canada archaeology facility in Dartmouth was "purpose-built" in 2009 to house Atlantic Canada's archaeological and historical objects collections, Fowler said, alongside a "really beautiful" conservation laboratory.

The "state-of-the-art" facility may be "the best of its kind" in the country, Fowler said, and it's "among the better archaeological labs internationally."

Champagne says Parks Canada is preparing to terminate its lease at the facility in 2020, once the artifacts have been moved.

With files from the CBC's Information Morning