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Ontario NEEDS a Marine Heritage Advisor

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Without a qualified marine archaeologist on the province's staff, our underwater heritage sites - including some of the world's best-preserved shipwrecks - are at risk of be destroyed.

 

What we stand to lose

 A frank look at the Province of Ontario’s abandonment of our marine heritage.

Written by Krissy Nickle, Vice President, Save Ontario Shipwrecks

In mid-November of 2011, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport eliminated the role of Marine Heritage Advisor. The Ministry searched for over a year to find a qualified candidate to provide specialist technical consulting advice, expertise and training on marine archaeology, archaeological resource conservation, protection and management, to provincial marine heritage organizations, other ministries/ governments, divers and other key stakeholders. They only managed to fill the position in late 2009; now, almost exactly two years later, the role is being eliminated.

As the Vice President of Save Ontario Shipwrecks (one of the “provincial marine heritage organizations” mentioned above) I am devastated by the loss of a provincial Marine Heritage Advisor. Not just the loss of the position itself, but the potential short- and long-term ramifications of having no one in the Provincial Government qualified to assess and protect our marine heritage resources.

Ontario has significant marine heritage resources. One sixth of our province is covered by lakes and rivers, most of which have, at some point, been conduits of travel, trade and settlement. The cold, fresh water in Ontario’s lakes and rivers make them an ideal environment for archaeological preservation: staggering examples of preservation on a scale not seen anywhere else in the world. These waters contain, among other things:

• Perfectly preserved ships that sank in battles, or because of accidents or natural disasters. These ships are time capsules which often contain artefacts that reveal the cultural context of the ship and the story of her last moments;

• The remains of fish-traps and weirs, campsites and settlements that make up a record of the earliest First Nations peoples who travelled, traded and lived along Ontario’s waterways;

• Submerged docks, locks, and even entire towns that tell the story of settlement, trade, and industry in this province.

The argument has been made that the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport still employs a staff of archaeologists and heritage professionals, so why does this one position matter. Marine archaeology is a highly specialized discipline with experienced and knowledgeable professionals in short supply all around the world. The Province of Ontario has a duty to protect and preserve its fragile underwater cultural resources. And up to this point, I’ve been proud of the Ministry’s Cultural Services Unit for their inclusion of a Marine Heritage Advisor. The Province has even legislated the protection of three of our most important shipwrecks: the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, and the Hamilton and the Scourge in Lake Ontario. But this legislation has little practical value if the Province has no means to back it up. Yes, provincial law enforcement can prevent people from diving on these wrecks, and can guard against theft and vandalism of all our underwater heritage resources. From a legal standpoint, very little will change, except that the Province will no longer have an expert on hand to assist our police and attorneys in their efforts to uphold the law.

Theft or vandalism is one thing: these acts are against the law, and can be dealt with as such. Without a Provincial Marine Heritage Advisor, our submerged heritage sites face a much greater threat: completely legal destruction. Many sites, especially those along shorelines, lay in the path of proposed construction and development projects. One of the key responsibilities stated in the job specifications of the Marine Heritage Advisor is to provide “critical review and comment on archaeological assessment and mitigation studies, and development proposals that may impact archaeological resources” and to ensure “that submerged cultural resources are not adversely impacted by development.” With no one qualified to judge the quality of underwater archaeological assessments, clearance may be given for development of a site to proceed without a full understanding of the implications to our marine heritage. And once a 5000 year old First Nations settlement is dredged from the riverbed, or a commercial dock piling is driven through a War of 1812 shipwreck, the damage is done: a unique and priceless remnant of history, along with the knowledge it could have provided, is lost and can never be recovered.

Protection of Ontario’s marine heritage is not just about historical knowledge, or the physical aspects of the sites themselves, which – whatever their intrinsic value – could be viewed as priceless. Our marine heritage sites, specifically our shipwrecks, have real value to our economy: they are the key to a thriving sector of business in this province. There is an entire tourism industry in Ontario that operates surrounding marine heritage resources – including almost 200 small businesses ranging from dive shops to charter vessels. There are over 200,000 SCUBA divers in Ontario alone, not to mention neighbouring provinces as well as visiting divers from the United States where laws and attitudes concerning the removal of artefacts from wreck sites are much different. 17% of American and Canadian SCUBA divers travel to Ontario to dive. Among North American divers our province is rated second only to British Columbia as the most appealing place to travel in Canada. And let’s face it: we’re not the Caribbean. We don’t have coral reefs or bright, tropical fish. Divers aren’t coming to Ontario to see zebra mussels and lake trout: they are coming here to see some of the best preserved shipwrecks in the entire world. If Ontario’s wrecks are not monitored and protected, then Ontario’s divers – and the dive tourists from around the world – will go elsewhere to dive. And with them will go substantial tourism dollars. A study carried out in 2006 to assess the possible financial benefits of encouraging a dive industry in shoreline communities along Lake Huron suggested that over one dive season, anywhere between 1 and 3 million dollars could be generated into the local economy. An earlier study on the economic impact of tourism noted that for every $1 of tourism expenditure generated in a community, a further $7 is expended in that community indirectly (for example, expenditures by businesses that cater to tourists, as well as expenditures by the employees of those companies). Assuming these statistics still hold true, that would bring the total up to 8-24 million dollars generated by SCUBA diving tourism in one community over one season. These figures are just dollars and cents, and don’t even touch on the existing jobs and new employment opportunities that are the result of a thriving dive community. The elimination of the Marine Heritage Advisor position puts at risk the greater Ontario SCUBA community which depends to a significant degree on the preservation of shipwrecks to attract present and future divers.

Save Ontario Shipwrecks is a group dedicated to the protection of Ontario’s marine heritage, but we aren’t the only ones who think that Ontario NEEDS a Marine Heritage Advisor. OPSEU, heritage groups, dive groups, archaeologists, knowledgeable professionals and concerned citizens have all expressed alarm over the elimination of this position. Our concerns have been met with polite indifference. But this issue affects all Ontarians, so I’m asking all Ontarians to make their voices heard. The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport needs to live up to its name: the loss of Ontario’s Marine Heritage Advisor threatens Ontario tourism. It threatens Ontario culture. It threatens Ontario sport.

For Ontario’s sake, I hope it’s not too late.

 



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