DRAFT Canadian Archaeological Association Statement for the Ethical Handling of Human Remains May 2024

Dear CAA Members,

On behalf of the CAA Executive Committee, it is my pleasure to share with you this draft “Statement for the Ethical Handling of Human Remains.” This document was prepared by CAA Executive Committee members and vetted by five individuals from the archaeological, Indigenous, and bioarchaeological communities. Please send your comments to president@canadianarchaeology.com and/or join us at the Annual General Meeting in Saskatoon on Saturday May 4, 2024, 3:20–5:00 PM (CST), where there will be an opportunity to discuss and vote on the proposed document.

We look forward to your feedback.

Helen Kristmanson

DRAFT last edited April 13, 2024

Canadian Archaeological Association
Statement for the Ethical Handling of Human Remains
May 2024

Archaeology is the study of the ancient and recent human past through material remains. Because archaeologists may encounter and study human remains as part of their work, the Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA) is providing this statement to complement the CAA’s Principles of Ethical Conduct.

People have a unique relationship with human remains. Human remains can have personal, cultural, symbolic, spiritual, or religious significance. They can be important cultural and political symbols of identity and association with the land. They also have heritage, archaeological, scientific, and educational value, providing significant information on earlier populations.

The importance of human remains to Indigenous peoples in Canada has been affirmed by/recognized by the 1992 Task Force of Museums and First Peoples Turning the Page: Forging New Partnerships Between Museums and First Peoples, the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, the 2022 Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums, the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 3, as well as in various policies and agreements.

There are differing viewpoints on many aspects of work with human remains, what constitutes engagement, consultation, or collaboration, and ideas about best practices. This statement does not address the specifics of all viewpoints; instead, it provides broad principles.

Since its founding in 1968, the CAA has been dedicated to the archaeological heritage of Canada. Because of this focus, the principles outlined in this statement apply to all aspects of archaeological work in Canada involving human remains. The work covered by this statement includes, but is not limited to, excavation, research, education, curation, exhibits, publication, return, and reburial. It does not apply to human remains that are the subject of a police or coroner’s investigation. While the statement is intended to apply to Canada, it can also provide guidance to CAA members who work in other locales. By using these principles, the harm associated with some of archaeology’s past practices can be avoided.

Principle 1: Understand and comply with applicable law and policy.
Each country has its own legal framework, which may include instruments that relate to work with human remains. In Canada, the legal framework is complex. A number of federal, provincial, and territorial statutes and policies apply to human remains. In addition, there are formal arrangements with Indigenous peoples including treaties and self-government agreements. There may also be memoranda or protocols. These frameworks set out requirements or processes, including engagement and consultation, when finding or working with human remains. It is important to note that Canadian law and policy evolve in response to case law and international instruments as well as Indigenous rights, laws, and jurisdiction. Ethical obligations may transcend legal frameworks that set the standard for archaeological work with human remains.

Principle 2: Seek and incorporate relevant perspectives.
It is important to seek and incorporate the perspectives of next of kin, lineal descendants, descendant communities or populations, relevant Indigenous peoples, organizations and communities, relevant non-Indigenous communities, cultural and religious affiliated groups, and other stakeholders (hereinafter; as relevant persons, communities, or groups) in making decisions about how and whether to work with human remains. In some cases, this may mean that work might not be done unless it is legally required.

Principle 3: Seek consent, engage, collaborate, and communicate.
Every reasonable effort should be made to obtain free, prior and informed consent from relevant persons, communities, or groups before working with human remains. In each stage of work, every reasonable effort should be made to engage, collaborate, and maintain communication with relevant persons, communities, or groups.  

Principle 4: Treat human remains with respect.
Human remains are deserving of the dignity and respect afforded to living people. This principle applies to all human remains, regardless of ethnicity, sex, age, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, cultural tradition, form of burial, condition of remains, or circumstances of acquisition.

Principle 5: Follow best practices and uphold the highest ethical standards.
Work with human remains should be approached from a perspective of ethical care, responsibility, and equity, rather than entitlement, presumed ownership, or exclusivity. 

All work must be done by individuals with the appropriate qualifications and training. Students must be carefully supervised by experienced and properly trained personnel. Be transparent about funding sources and seek to avoid conflicts of interest, violations of privacy, or other harm during work and in any subsequent archiving and use of the data.

The CAA reminds its members to conform to its Principles of Ethical Conduct https://canadianarchaeology.com/caa/about/ethics/principles-ethical-conduct, https://canadianarchaeology.com/caa/about/ethics/presentation-human-remains-caa-media, as well as other available policies and procedures for the treatment of human remains during excavations, lab research, teaching, curation, exhibition, and publication, even if they do not expect to encounter human remains. CAA members and affiliated organizations are also encouraged to develop their own policies as appropriate. The principles outlined above can provide the framework for developing these policies.

Ethical standards for archaeological practice will continue to change. As a result, this statement will be reviewed at a minimum every seven years to ensure that it reflects the developments in laws and standards. It is the responsibility of the CAA Ethics Committee, the Indigenous Issues Committee, and the Unmarked Graves Working Group to draft an updated statement in accordance with the charge issued by the CAA Board of Directors.

For the development of this statement, the CAA has adapted content from the SAA Statement Concerning the Treatment of Human Remains dated April 14, 2021. https://www.saa.org/career-practice/saa-statements-guidelines/statement-details/2021/04/29/draft-statement-concerning-the-treatment-of-human-remains-(2021)