British Columbia

Tseshaht First Nation calls on B.C. to allocate part of $789M museum upgrade funds to repatriating artifacts

Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the Royal B.C. Museum, the Tseshaht First Nation wants to see the province focus on repatriation of Indigenous cultural items.

Province should help set up cultural centres to house items on territories, First Nation says

The Royal B.C. Museum will close this September for seven years while it undergoes a complete rebuild. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

A First Nation in B.C. has written an open letter to the province suggesting a different approach to planned upgrades for the Royal B.C. Museum.

Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild and redesign that building, they want to see the museum focus on repatriation of Indigenous cultural items.

In May the province announced it would spend $789 million over the next seven years to build a new museum, dealing with seismic issues and making it more accessible. 

The plan received backlash right away, forcing Tourism Minister Melanie Mark to defend the decision, saying the current building is seismically unsafe, filled with hazardous materials like asbestos and lead, inaccessible to people with disabilities and structurally insufficient to maintain its current collection or host major exhibits.

Tseshaht Elected Chief Councillor Ken Watts said while he understands those issues, he wants to see some of that money diverted toward returning artifacts to First Nations, and helping them build their own museums or cultural centres to house those artifacts.

"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't get up and speak on behalf of not just our people, but the people who made those items that they have in the museum, you know, ancestors who aren't here anymore," he told All Points West guest host Kathryn Marlow.

He said the first step would be for the province to engage with each First Nation about what they'd like to see happen with their items. In the case of the Tseshaht, Watts said they'd like their items to be returned to their community. 

"That alone is empowering our people to know that those once sacred items are returning back to where they belong," he said.

The Tseshaht First Nation has an array of cultural items in the museum, including carvings and harpoon points. 

"That harpoon point isn't just a harpoon point," he said. 

"It was maybe carved by one of our current community members' great-grandfather."

Watts said Friday he had not yet heard back from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture about his suggestion. 

In an emailed statement to CBC, the ministry agreed that returning ancestral remains and cultural items is important for reconciliation, and said the Royal B.C. Museum has been repatriating Indigenous collections for "decades."

"Indigenous belongings and ancestral remains will continue to be available throughout the project for the purpose of repatriation," the ministry said.

LISTEN | Tseshaht First Nation propose different approach to museum upgrade funds

The Tseshaht are calling for the government to significantly reduce the nearly $800 million budget for the one building in Victoria, and instead direct some of that funding to help B.C. nations repatriate their artifacts and house them in their own territories. Elected chief councillor Ken Watts spoke with Kathryn Marlow.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Courtney Dickson

Broadcast and Digital Journalist

Courtney Dickson is a journalist working in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at courtney.dickson@cbc.ca with story tips.

With files from All Points West and Bethany Lindsay

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