Program News

SFU joins in partnership to protect and study Canada's maritime archaeology

December 29, 2019

Students in the Heritage Resource Management program often have a good idea of where their research interests lie before even applying for graduate admissions–they are, of course, influenced by the real issues they’ve faced as professionals within Canadian archaeological practices.

With recent HRM grad Mike Pitul’s thesis “Underwater Cultural Heritage Law and Policy in Ontario: History and Prospects for Reform” tuned in to the crucial need for government protection in this niche, it’s no surprise his defence sparked a larger discussion on the future of maritime archaeology in Canada through a workshop led by visiting examiner Dr. Kimberly Monk.

“For me,” says Pitul, “it’s a validation that the work I did for my thesis was important.” The workshop was a great step forward for maritime archaeology to have a larger voice within Canada, he says. “Work coming out of the HRM program by myself and other students can help in fostering that voice.”

Since the HRM program is committed to enabling MA candidates to follow their research interests wherever they take them, the recruitment of secondary supervisors to facilitate research projects is a critical means for supporting the full spectrum of thesis topics. Because of this, a regional specialist in maritime archaeology was chosen for Pitul’s supervisory committee: Dr. Kimberly Monk of Trent University and Brock University.

Led by Monk, the workshop was the first installment of planning for a much-needed national coalition among experts in maritime archaeology research, preservation and public outreach. “Colleagues who have worked in Canada and abroad will be critical to our collective,” explains Monk. “They will help shape the future of the discipline; affecting global understanding of Canada’s archaeological legacy.”

Archaeological sites located in oxygen-free underwater environs often preserve materials that would otherwise be lost on dry land. “Canada’s coastal and inland seas hold an abundance of historic resources dating from 14,000 years of human habitation,” says Monk. They’re an important resource; however, Canada currently lacks overarching laws to protect maritime archaeology and other coastal heritage. A collaborative partnership, says Monk, “would improve research practice, promote engagement, and enable education and innovation through a national strategy.”

Since Canada has over 200,000 km of coastline–the longest of any country in the world–and also contains 20% of its freshwater, especially in the context of global climate change, Canada must acknowledge and protect its coastal heritage. “HRM has mostly been left to provincial and territorial governments–only a few of which have recognized the importance of underwater heritage–and so, projects like dredging, offshore wind farms, and beachfront development have too often fallen through the cracks,” says Welch. “Canada can and must do a better job of protecting fragile and endangered archaeological resources from unregulated alteration.”

These include archaic settlements at L’Anse Amour in Newfoundland, historic fur trade sites across the country, BC’s submerged paleolandscapes of the Gwaii Haanas archipelago, and historic shipwrecks like the HMS Erebus and Terror (both 1813) in Nunavut.

“The partnership seeks to reinforce the importance of Canada’s most threatened cultural heritage,” says Welch. “Building a coalition is the first step toward changing the status of the government’s treatment and funding in support of preserving underwater and marine archaeological sites. First Nations, Metís, and Inuit participation will be essential.” Amongst the goals of this partnership are to establish a national advisory council, enhance the profile of maritime archaeology and create a professional body for advocacy work.

The next workshop is scheduled for March 2020 in Ottawa, where national partners who have already expressed support will be formalized, such as Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team, the Canadian Museum of History, and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. Monk says that while the overall goal is national partnership, the short-term effort is mobilizing regional networks to strengthen communication across sectors.

“SFU Archaeology’s HRM Program exists to serve the dynamic needs and interests of the community,” says Welch. With its solid reputation, leading thinkers and established and emerging assets in underwater research and training, SFU and its Department of Archaeology was a natural host for the event and conduit for the broader Canadian interests in maritime archaeology.

“Until very recently, Canadians interested in maritime archaeology have been obliged to attend universities in the US and UK to hone their skills,” explains Monk. With none of those universities placing an emphasis on Canadian issues and concerns, it’s certainly understandable why the practice has been overlooked on a national scale. In just its third year offering the online professional master’s program, and recently celebrating its tenth graduate, the HRM program has proven itself to be precisely what's needed to support heritage work. Through Pitul's analysis of marine legislation and policy, his research has had a direct impact on promoting the field of maritime archaeology and its conservation within Canada.

The partnership will continue to serve as a catalyst for sustained movement and advancement in the area, now that a critical mass has been reached. These efforts, says Welch, will help cultivate the next generations to investigate, evaluate and protect maritime heritage for future study and for the many other values it comprises.