A Sarnia couple who set out to build a fence dug up more than they bargained for recently when they unearthed a 400-year-old skeleton and got stuck with a $5,000 bill from the province.
The archeological misadventure began two weeks ago when Ken Campbell came across some bones while digging post holes in their backyard.
He put them aside, thinking they must have belonged to an animal. The following week, his wife, Nicole Sauve, asked about the bones, which sat unceremoniously atop a bucket of earth “I said, ‘They’re not animal bones, Ken. Let’s dig some more and see what we can find,’ ”she said.
What they found was the rest of the skeleton of an aboriginal woman. The OPP, who taped off the couple’s backyard, called in forensic anthropologist Michael Spence to examine the site.
Spence said that the skeleton was that of a woman who was about 24 years old when she died, probably in the late 1500s or early 1600s.
The condition of her teeth led him to suspect she was part of hunting, gathering and fishing society. The couple lives by the Blue Water Bridge, an area that once was the centre of an Ojibwa trade network. Spence said the woman is probably a descendant of those merchants.
After Spence determined there was no recent foul play involved, the Registrar of Cemeteries was contacted.
They told Sauve she had to hire an archeologist to conduct an assessment in her backyard — at her own expense.
Under Ontario’s Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, property owners are responsible for the costs of an archeological assessment if human remains are found on their land.
Sauve, whose final bill is for $5,000, has appealed to the mayor of Sarnia to pay the archeologist. She’s steadfast in her belief that it doesn’t matter what level of government steps in to pay, as long as she doesn’t have to.
“I did the right thing by her and this is what’s happening,” she said. Sauve said she’s heard that people from the nearby Aamjiwnaang First Nation are raising money to pay the bill, but they haven’t approached her directly.
No one from the band council office was available Friday to confirm those efforts. Bob Bailey, the MPP for the area, saw her story in the local newspaper and his staff did some research into the couple’s predicament.
He found out that Sauve can make a request to the Registrar of Cemeteries to determine if paying for the excavation would be considered an “undue financial burden.”
The registrar will then either reimburse her or pay the bill directly. Bailey said he has spoken to the minister of consumer services (the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act falls under her purview) and her staff, and intends to make sure Sauve won’t have to pay.
Sauve originally wanted to keep the skeleton of the woman — whom she named Sephira, after her granddaughter — where she was, but found out her land would have to be re-surveyed and another deed issued stating there’s a cemetery on the land.
She reluctantly agreed to have the bones disinterred and reinterred at the cemetery on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The woman is likely distantly related to the residents of the reserve nearby.
They performed a traditional ceremony at her house when they first found the bones, and then again after they moved her. The cemetery has a space specially designated for repatriated remains, where the skeleton now rests.
Sauve said people have been telling her that if they end up in a similar situation, they won’t alert authorities and risk having to fork over the cash to pay the bill.
“That is awful,” she said. “God forbid you have a murder victim, and you cover them up. Never will that person be brought home; never will their family have closure.”