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Ron Williamson was finishing university when he discovered a market for archeology. (Tim Fraser For the globe and mail)
Ron Williamson was finishing university when he discovered a market for archeology. (Tim Fraser For the globe and mail)

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Getting paid to dig up the past Add to ...

Most archeology in Canada is performed not by academics, but by private firms examining building sites before the developers move in with bulldozers. One of the biggest specialty consulting firms in the market is Toronto-based Archaeological Services Inc., which in its three decades has scraped away the dirt covering hundreds of sites, many of them containing crucial relics of first nations life or the remains of historic buildings. The firm Ron Williamson founded in 1980 employs 50 full-time staff who record and preserve key data and artifacts of the country’s past.

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Do most building or development projects now have to have some archeological work done before they start?

In Ontario, anything that needs Ontario Planning Act approval typically requires it, although it differs from municipality to municipality. Our business began as a result of that legislative mandate. Most people have no idea that archeology is a business. Yet more than 90 per cent of North American graduates from archeology programs end up doing this work, which is called cultural resource management.

How did you figure out this could be a good business?

In the late 1970s, I was finishing [university] and one of the regional archeologists at Ontario’s Ministry of Culture came to me and said they were putting in a new road, and [they needed] archeology done in advance. They said, do you want to do it? It was basically funded research, but in a completely different context than sitting in a university department writing out grant applications to get money. I have always had an entrepreneurial streak and this was a business opportunity.

Who are your clients?

About half the time it is private interests, such as land developers or infrastructure developers. The other two major clients are the public sector and first nations.

Do developers dislike having to have archeology done before they starting building?

When the legislation began to be implemented, the reaction on the part of the development community was, ‘Oh gosh, here is something else we have to do.’ They worried about delays. They soon learned that most of the time, things got identified, they were excavated and they were out of the way.

Do you work outside Ontario?

We have done work in Quebec and in Michigan and New York, and we are doing a little work out west right now. We are definitely focused in Ontario, but if it is work that interests us and that we feel that we can provide expertise that may be not available locally, then we will do it.

Are there other companies that do similar work in other provinces?

There are companies like ours right across Canada, but we are one of the bigger ones. There are many people who work out of their homes, doing maybe 10 contracts a year. … On the other end, there are big geotechnical firms such as Golder Associates, which has 7,000 employees worldwide and 2,000 in Canada. But archeology is just one of their businesses.

Who owns the data and artifacts you gather?

The developer does not own the artifacts or the information found at the sites. Our reports enter a public registry. What will be redacted is the exact location of the data and the client information. We are supposed to hold all the artifacts in the public interest. So we have them, or we find places for them to go. We have, in our control, about 1,700 banker’s boxes of material.

Do many first nations artifacts now stay in the ground?

Grave goods now remain buried. That is a total change in attitude. In the 19th and early to mid-20th centuries, people were out excavating burials all the time. Those remains would go back to universities and sit in boxes. Over the last 30 years there has been a huge move to repatriate that stuff back to the ground. Archeology is a more respectful discipline than it used to be.

Have first nations stopped some developments from happening?

If a first nation is engaged, they can make their point to the client and, depending on the client, there can be a conversation around that. Sometimes it is a very difficult discussion and you have to find work-arounds.

Have many urban sites been protected?

Recently, the site of Upper Canada’s first parliament building [in downtown Toronto] was put into public hands. The bulk of the archeological site was in private hands until about a month ago, when there was a land swap that moved that owner to another piece of land to do their development. It is rare that government gets involved and stops [development]. However, municipalities are putting in place planning legislation that will result in protection more often.

What are the most important discoveries you have made as an archeologist?

One is the Mantle site, which was one of the biggest and most complex Huron villages ever to have been occupied, at around 1500 AD. It is just south of Stouffville, Ont. It was excavated between 2003 and 2005. There is a very small portion of it preserved, but not much.

Another was the discovery of [the remains of] 28 soldiers from the War of 1812 in Fort Erie, Ont. It was a massive deal with lots of public attention, because it was the first cemetery of the war of 1812 to be examined. Those guys were all repatriated in 1988 to a national cemetery in New York state.

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