How the BC NDP will make it impossible to cancel the $1 billion Royal BC Museum plan

May 26 2022, 4:40 pm

BC’s NDP government will start demolishing the Royal BC Museum just months before the next scheduled provincial election — preventing its political opponents from being able to halt the controversial megaproject should they win power.

New details released Wednesday show wrecking crews will hit the museum’s exhibition hall in March 2024 – just seven months before the October 19 election that year.

Tourism Minister Melanie Mark denied she’s trying to push the $1 billion museum project past the point of no return, amid a fierce public backlash that the government should be instead spending the money on fixing the family doctor crisis, easing high gas prices, or building more affordable housing and child care spaces.

“Government is about making choices,” Mark said, when asked about the timeline on Wednesday. “And we have made it clear our government wants to protect our collective history.”

Liberals want to scrap museum rebuild

BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon has promised to scrap what he calls a “tone-deaf billion-dollar museum vanity project” in favour of a smaller, less expensive, safety upgrade to the existing 50-year-old facility.

“This half-baked project must be cancelled before it’s too late, and the money reinvested in people,” Falcon said Wednesday.

But with the new government construction schedule, Falcon may find himself facing a hole in the ground where the museum once was, should he win office.

“If that was the motivation, then shame on John Horgan and the NDP,” said Liberal MLA Todd Stone.

“British Columbians should know that if they do proceed, and they do demolish this museum prematurely, what they’re essentially doing is putting a big gaping hole in downtown Victoria that will be there for 10 years.”

Museum to be most expensive in Canada

At $1 billion ($789 million for the core museum and more than $200 million for a separate archives building), the Royal BC Museum project is the most expensive museum project in Canadian history.

The New Democrat government had clearly hoped for praise at such a sizeable investment in the province’s culture and tourism sector.

Instead, an anxious electorate has reacted with outrage at the enormous expenditure during a time of global instability and rising inflation that has dramatically increased the price of ordinary household goods, housing and other living expenses.

Premier John Horgan apologized last week for the bungled rollout and timing of the museum, but insisted it could be salvaged once the public saw the detailed business case backing up the decision.

“I very much regret that the jewel of our collective history, the Royal BC Museum, has become a political football,” he said.

“It certainly was not our intention to appear to be tone deaf to the challenges British Columbians are facing, I know full well the impact of high gas prices, the stresses of meeting family budgets, the challenges of inflation right across the board.”

Business case big on details, short on public input

The government did release the business case on Wednesday — with key sections about costs, labour agreements, project risks and design assumptions redacted as secret.

The Tourism Ministry made public 37 other documents as well, which show senior provincial officials spent the last five years crafting incredibly detailed plans on how to replace the museum, including commissioning expert reports, consulting with specialists, searching for land, and costing out all the options down to the dollar.

According to government estimates, it would cost almost $300 million more to seismically retrofit the existing structure and its asbestos-filled walls, as it would to just demolish it and rebuild something new with more space for modern exhibits and an Indigenous-led design.

But the hundreds of pages of documents that detail a half-decade of planning are also notable for what they are missing: Any public consultation whatsoever to talk to people and bring them onside with the plan.

Horgan said he was “surprised” people were surprised at the announcement this month.

Yet the dozens of reports show that outside of one “modernization” exercise done on improving the museum experience in 2019 — which focused mainly on better exhibits and made no mention of demolishing the existing structure, closing it for more than seven years, and rebuilding new facilities — the public was largely shut out of the planning process until they were sideswiped by the premier’s final plan announced this month.

Seismic defence on shaky ground

Stung by the backlash, Horgan and his tourism minister have pivoted their defence of the museum to the “seismic risk” of the buildings, constructed in the 1960s, which could collapse if there was a serious earthquake and crush some of the seven million historical artifacts.

The business case documents on Wednesday contained expert assessments that the museum buildings are in fair to poor seismic condition.

But there are also 48 BC school districts with average school seismic ratings at the same level or worse than the Royal BC Museum — where kids in classrooms could be killed.

In the Lower Mainland, some schools in Delta, Richmond, Vancouver, Burnaby, North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley and Surrey are at an even higher risk of collapse in an earthquake right now than the museum<.

Approximately 250 schools in BC are currently waiting on funding for seismic repairs from a provincial government that says it doesn’t have the money right now to complete them.

The Opposition Liberals have asked: Why is seismically upgrading the museum more important than schools?

The tourism minister said it’s not an either-or proposition.

“We have a duty to protect our shared history, our collective history, but we are also seismically upgrading schools,” said Mark.

Government rests its case

As far as the BC government is concerned, the release of the business case this week appears to be the end of its argument as to why the museum is full-steam ahead to construction.

But it has done little to dampen its critics or lift the public mood.

“This has been a public relations disaster,” said BC Green MLA Adam Olsen.

“At a time when British Columbians are struggling with an affordability crisis, the government has chosen to build the most expensive museum ever constructed in Canada.

“It is no wonder the public response has been overwhelmingly negative. The BC NDP have failed to bring people along in a process that has been ongoing for years.”

 


Rob is Daily Hive’s Political Columnist, tackling the biggest political stories in BC. You can catch him on CHEK News as their on-air Political Correspondent.

Rob ShawRob Shaw

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