Below Our Roots: A GenZ Perspective in Ontario Archaeology

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

By James A.W. Wright | Archeologist | Canada

Today was my third time starting a job in archaeology as the most junior member of a crew. It was, then, my third time listening to the cynical and critical conversations of the experienced and well educated Ontario archaeologists. Among the discussions about the adventures and good times in field archaeology, the topics of mistreatment, absence of professionalism and integrity, low pay and poor labour standards constantly appeared.

While I am lucky to have a second consecutive field season with a company that cares about its workers and pays them fairly, most of the conversations have a more negative tone.

Unfortunately, archaeologists are not generally well paid, extended benefits or unionised. The vast majority of archaeology jobs exist in the private industry of North America and have a high turnover rate. Many students and graduates burn out and turn to careers with higher salaries and job benefits.

Almost all of us on site had friends or former colleagues who had left the discipline altogether, with the more senior members having plenty of friends cycle through. Some of these former archaeologists were not simply field technicians, but also researchers or professional licensed archaeologists.

By this point, many of you are probably scratching your head trying to understand what is happening. Maybe you ignore that every time anyone modifies a property by breaking earth, they must have an archaeological assessment the same way they have an environmental assessment. This was also my reaction when learning about Cultural Resource Management (the flashy name for Field Archaeology in Ontario).

With the rapid growth of the Greater Toronto Area, countless archaeological assessments, surveys and excavations occur each year during the months where the ground is thawed. In Ontario, private contractors handle most of the work, hiring teams to conduct rescue archaeology with and for them.

It is rare for sites to be partially excavated in Cultural Resource Management with portions left for future researchers, but are instead entirely excavated (rescued) before starting the development project. This is due to regulations which are continuously built upon, but were largely put in place during the 1970s.

There are many critiques of the regulation, of the underpinning ideology, of how the work is conducted (poorly much of the time), of the white and European domination of the discipline (especially concerning in Canada where much of the archaeology is Indigenous), and many other issues I would like to touch on later.

One critical positive point, however, stands out: unionisation. The company I work for is the first in Ontario to become unionised and to sign a collective bargaining agreement. This has resulted in higher wages, fair mileage, benefits after a year, and even a pension plan. Several larger companies have followed suit, though their fight will be much harder due to resistance in management.

Unionisation represents a move away from the constant cycle of grinding and destruction of young archaeologists and their passion, at least to some extent. Hopefully, in time, more issues like those above – which I do not feel qualified to talk on – will be addressed and improved.

For now, the subtle feeling of victory and progress brought to those of us lucky enough to be working under a union will have to do.


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#labor #ontario #archaeologist #anthropology #laborunions #archaeology

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