I have read about people finding what may be human remains on their property. What is my obligation as a landowner if this happened to me?

We get this question from time to time and though it’s not really a RECO issue, it seems of interest. So we reached out to those in the know – Ontario’s Registrar of Cemeteries at the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services – to get the facts.

According to the Registrar of Cemeteries, the first thing you do is stop all construction work immediately and contact the police or the coroner.  This is the law and you face hefty fines if you don’t. You should contact your lawyer too.

You must also protect the site from any type of disturbance until a decision on what to do with the remains is made.

If the remains are human, the coroner must determine whether foul play is suspected, and police will investigate for any evidence that a crime was committed. The coroner will notify the Registrar of Cemeteries if foul play is not suspected and the burial site will be dealt with under the burial site rules.

The first thing the Registrar of Cemeteries’ office will do is decide whether you need to hire a professionally licensed archaeologist to determine the origin of the site (i.e. the cultural affinity of the remains, as well as the number of burials on the site).

If you do, you as landowner are responsible for the costs of the archaeological investigation, though some relief may be available under specific conditions.

Depending on the archaeologist’s findings, the Registrar will issue notifications to identify persons or “representatives” with an interest in the remains – possibly a nearby First Nations community or people related to the person whose remains were discovered.

How the remains are then dealt with, along with associated costs, will depend on negotiations between you and the representatives. This must be documented in a Site Disposition Agreement.

The parties to the agreement can agree to dis-inter and rebury the remains in a First Nations or local cemetery or leave the remains where they are and have the site registered as a cemetery. If an agreement cannot be reached, the matter will go to binding arbitration.

If the parties agree to leave the remains on your property, you as landowner would be responsible for maintaining the cemetery and allowing public access to it.

A final point: if there is no evidence that the human remains were intentionally buried at this site, the Registrar may declare the site to be an Irregular Burial Site.  In this case, the landowner alone makes the decision as to whether the remains will be left where they are and the site will be established as a cemetery, or the remains will be moved to a registered cemetery.

Further information about dealing with burial site discoveries is available from the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services website. But first and foremost, know that you must notify police or the coroner immediately if you find remains on your property.

Joseph Richer is Registrar of the Real Estate Council of Ontario (RECO). He is in charge of the administration and enforcement of all rules that govern real estate professionals in Ontario. You can find more tips at reco.on.ca, follow on Twitter @RECOhelps or on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/RECOhelps.

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