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Les Leyne: B.C. government has misread public mood with museum plan

Horgan government wants to demolish Royal B.C. Museum, spend $789 million on a replacement. Reaction has been remarkably negative.
Lobby of the Royal B.C. Museum in May 2022. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

There is a way to announce a huge investment in a major cultural attraction that generates excitement and brings people together.

Then there’s the NDP way. Reaction to Premier John Horgan’s promise to spend $789 million rebuilding the Royal B.C. Museum has been pouring in. It’s remarkably negative.

Sources suggest the government expected some blowback, based on how many other pressing problems there are. But it’s striking to see so many people rebuff such a major high-profile local investment. The suspicion is that the antipathy is much stronger than government expected.

People may warm to the idea over the long years of construction. But the announcement looks today like a major misread of the public mood. People are desperately looking for family doctors, spending a fortune to fill up their cars and coping with a long-established housing crisis while watching inflation trigger alarm bells. The NDP is struggling to cope with all that and more, but has still found the time and money to set out on a multi-year adventure to replace a 54-year-old building.

One of the bellwether remarks that signalled this was not going to be universally embraced came from B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen. He’s a born and bred Greater Victorian, a proud Tsartlip First Nations member and thoroughly versed in the Indigenous history that drove the NDP museum decision.

A day after the commitment, he posted: “I am still processing the astonishing news yesterday.”

But not in a good way. “Nobody is calling for a new $800-million museum!”

He recited the litany of better uses for the money and said the NDP has lost touch. His duty in opposition is to criticize, but the negative incredulity was matched by many. Letters to the editor and feedback to media sites are running strongly along that line.

B.C. Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon was sworn in Monday as an MLA and quickly joined the pack. If he’s elected premier, the project will be cancelled instantly, he vowed. “A ridiculous vanity project.”

Horgan defended his work on all the other more pressing affordability fronts, but his main defence of the museum was to stress the difference between operating funds and capital funds.

The initial wave of rejection stems from the fact taxpayers were not prepared for the idea. The RBCM’s recent problems were mostly about the exhibits and the institution’s internal ethos, not about the facility itself. An extensive review of the institution in 2019 with lots of public consultation was about “modernization.” The “What We Heard” report touched on the facilities, but mostly on improving or renovating them.

The idea of demolishing it got one line. “One participant noted the opportunity for a new building,” it reported.

Yet somewhere along the way, the idea of building an entirely new museum took root and grew, in secret.

The “What We Heard” report was to lead to a business case. The RBCM said the next year that the government was working on the business case for a major capital investment.

No business case was released Friday. No budget was released, other than the curiously specific bottom-line price tag of $789 million. No construction timeline and no renderings, either.

Tourism Minister Melanie Mark referred to a “design vision” with Indigenous ceremonial, cultural and celebratory spaces as well as other public festivals. But it wasn’t released either. So no warning was given that B.C. needs a new museum, and zero documented justification has been released for the project to address the alleged need. It’s a strikingly shallow unveiling of a cultural mega-project.

All that is available is Horgan’s assurance: “We have gone through the due diligence that governments must do when making massive investments like this.”

The announcement was devoted entirely to Indigenous reconciliation. On the nuts and bolts, there was just a brief outline of building deficiencies. There’s only one elevator. Modern accessibility standards aren’t met, and physical, sensory and cultural barriers have to be removed. Some archives are stored below sea level. (Archive problems are already being addressed with a $200-million facility being built in Colwood.)

Just So You Know: There is speculation that career plans are being laid and the project is considered Horgan’s legacy project. Given Falcon’s promise to kill it the first chance he gets, the inside joke is that the NDP wants to “Site C it,” meaning get it to the point of no return before anything happens to their hold on power.

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