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$1B for museum could be better spent elsewhere, critics say

Money would be better spent on improving health care, two opposition MLAs say
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The Royal B.C. Museum in downtown Victoria. It will close Sept. 6 and will be torn down to make way for a new museum that’s scheduled to open in 2030. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The announcement of a new $789-million provincial museum seemed to come out of the blue in the midst of immediate concerns among citizens about healthcare, say two MLAs who questioned the plan.

Premier John Horgan unveiled a plan Friday to shut the aging 54-year-old Royal B.C. Museum on Sept. 6 and tear it down. It is to be rebuilt and opened in 2030 after extensive consultations to establish a more inclusive, accessible, safer and modern facility.

For citizens, especially those in the capital region, their first concern is healthcare, Peter Milobar, B.C. Liberal Party opposition critic for finance, said Saturday.

He pointed to the lack of family doctors and of walk-in clinics, pressure on hospitals, and issues around nursing.

Resolving the healthcare crisis is “going to take a lot of dollars injected into that system as well,” Milobar said.

“The immediate question was, what could have this billion dollars done in that setting instead?”

References to a $1-billion price tag include $224 million already announced for a new archives and collection building in Colwood for the museum.

People do not begrudge the idea of modernizing the museum, Milobar said, but it was not really on the radar screen given the issues around health care and the fact that the tourism sector is just slowly getting back on its feet after being hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greater Victoria’s tourism sector has long been one of the region’s key economic foundations. The museum has been a star attraction, pulling in about 880,000 visitors annually prior to the pandemic.

Local First Nations will be partners on the project and the museum’s design will be influenced to recognize the Lekwungen peoples as well as the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

After the museum closes, plans to maintain its presence in the province include using the existing plaza and presenting touring exhibits.

Milobar cited two key concerns — how $1 billion will be spent and the length of time the museum will be closed.

”If anyone believes that this is going to be done in seven and a half years for $789 million and not have massive cost overruns or delays, I’ve got a tunnel in the Lower Mainland we can sell you,” he said.

The museum hit the headlines last year when First Nations and pioneer exhibit were closed; the museum said it needed to decolonize and develop displays highlighting minorities who helped build the province. Tourism Minister Melanie Mark said Friday that the new facility will represent reconciliation in action.

The Green Party’s Adam Olsen, who represents Saanich North and the Islands, said the provincial government has missed the point by announcing a project of such magnitude. Citizens are facing significant immediate challenges due to the lack of family doctors, rising costs due to inflation and a shortage of affordable housing, he said. “The housing market is currently unsustainable for most people,” he said.

Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, agreed that “many problematic aspects” have arisen around the museum. But he added: “None of those need to be addressed with a nearly billion-dollar facility. I just think the timing of this is just terrible.”

Many of the “cultural issues we’ve been talking about with respect to this facility can be solved in the space that already exists,” he said.

The announcement “came out of the blue,” said Olsen, who fears a new facility would not stay within its already “extravagant” budget.

On social media, Olsen wrote that the announcement was “astonishing,” saying the government has demonstrated it is out of touch. “Nobody is calling for a new $800-million museum,” he wrote.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com