Opinion: New CEO brings no transparency to Royal BC Museum's precarious situation

Apr 14 2022, 8:00 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Lucas Aykroyd, an award-winning Victoria-born journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. In 2009, he was nominated for an Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC (now Indigenous Tourism BC) media award.

Alicia Dubois, the first-ever CEO of the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC), was announced as the Royal BC Museum’s (RBCM) new CEO on February 9. However, more than two months later, significant questions about her role remain unanswered. The questions go beyond her still-undisclosed specific vision for the Victoria museum’s controversial redevelopment.

Dubois has not explained why she resigned abruptly from AIOC after just 14 months – far shorter than a CEO’s average tenure. That resignation came in a Friday news dump, a 6 pm ET press release on November 12. It was just nine days after RBCM announced its third-floor closures, including the First Peoples Gallery, Becoming BC, and the Old Town. Both the optics and the timing are concerning.

RBCM needs transparency around Dubois’ hiring. For too long, its board has operated without adequate oversight. When the board hired Jack Lohman as CEO in 2012, it handed him a secret $53,000 bonus that the BC government later clawed back with a budget cut. Desperate for stability and direction, the museum cannot afford another scandal now.

Many British Columbians no longer give RBCM the benefit of the doubt. The museum mishandled both its 2020 internal racism crisis and its rushed 2021 decision to dismantle the core galleries in the name of decolonization and modernization despite massive public opposition. The subsequent messaging pivot to “we need seismic upgrades, asbestos removal, and improved accessibility” – an obvious attempt to quiet public outcry – would be more compelling if all those things hadn’t been equally true in 1992.

In an October 28 Politico interview that gave no hint she would leave AIOC days later, Dubois said: “If there’s accountability and engagement, then it can create significant change for communities.” RBCM’s commitment to accountability and engagement, however, is questionable.

For example, Dubois, a former legal counsel and banking executive, has not shed light on her longstanding ties to the Alberta energy industry.

Her family moved to Fort McMurray for her father’s oil sands job with Syncrude in 1978. Cut to 2021: the last big AIOC deal Dubois oversaw was a $40 million loan guarantee to give eight Alberta First Nations communities a stake in the Northern Courier Pipeline System, linking the Fort Hills oil sands project to Suncor’s Fort McMurray facilities. As recently as March, the Calgary-based Young Women in Energy recognized Dubois as a member of its annual awards selection committee.

For context, The Narwhal describes Suncor as “Canada’s largest carbon emitter: it belches roughly 28 million tonnes into the atmosphere every year, equivalent to the entire emissions of Tunisia.”

It’s ironic that after eliminating colonial-themed exhibitions on logging, fishing, and mining, the museum hired a CEO with roots in oil and gas. It’s relevant to know how her ties could affect everything from RBCM’s climate change displays to its naming rights. Now is the time for disclosure – not at the launch of the Exxon Mobil Woolly Mammoth Memorial Hall.

British Columbians and out-of-province visitors alike want specifics about what a redeveloped museum will look like, not euphemisms. However, RBCM leadership has been far more generous with repeating terms like “inclusive” and “diverse” than, say, actually repatriating Indigenous treasures or providing plans for future galleries. To be meaningful, rhetoric must be accompanied by action.

But does the museum want the public to know what it’s doing?

In mid-January, I filed two freedom of information requests with the BC Ministry of Tourism and one with RBCM about the museum’s redevelopment plans. Such requests are normally fulfilled within 30 business days.

The two BC Ministry of Tourism responses that finally arrived this month – although heavily censored – include unused talking points for the original November 3 announcement about the closures. In some instances, these talking points use stronger language than what BC Tourism Minister Melanie Mark and museum officials actually used for public consumption.

One sentence confirms that destroying the third floor was a goal in itself: “We are starting with the third floor because its continued display of offensive narratives demands immediate action.”

There is this dogmatic assertion about the arbitrary way RBCM implemented the closures: “Regarding this specific announcement, there was never any way the museum could begin work to update gallery narratives and build a more-inclusive museum without closing the third-floor.”

And there is this debatable statement: “Closing the third-floor galleries is about demonstrating reconciliation in action.”

If the Old Town was so offensive, why did the museum encourage people for weeks to check out Christmas in Old Town one more time? And even granting that the First Peoples Gallery needed overhauling and updating, a replacement plan should have been finalized in advance.

Under Dubois, RBCM, which gets nearly $12 million a year from the BC government, must be answerable to taxpayers. Cutting the cost of admission from $18 to only $5 this month at least acknowledged that the visitor experience has been diminished for the indefinite future.

Regardless, by choosing to dismantle its most cherished exhibitions without any real plans, RBCM has placed itself firmly under the microscope. Until there is a plan, budget, and timeline for redeveloping the museum, the new CEO – whose official bio bizarrely remains blank at this late date – will continue to face questions.

Lucas AykroydLucas Aykroyd

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