A whodunnit Down Under: Who smashed Canada's Inuit sculptures?

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould planned to give Inuit art as gifts to New Zealand's prime minister and attorney general during her official visit there. But the plan fell apart when someone vandalized the sculptures, smashing them to bits. The incident remains a mystery.

Police never notified after Canadian gifts to New Zealand officials shattered in 'deliberate' act

A vandal apparently smashed two Inuit sculptures intended as Canada's gifts to New Zealand's prime minister and attorney general. Canadian officials say the incident remains unsolved. One was a whale, similar to this piece. (nativeartsandcrafts.com)

Call it the "Curious Case of the Bashed Bear and the Whacked Whale."

Two Inuit sculptures intended as Canada's gifts to New Zealand's prime minister and attorney general mysteriously arrived in that country smashed to bits.

"Due to the long distance travelled, including transit points in three countries, it was not possible to determine where or when the damage to the sculptures occurred or to assign blame to any one person," said Angela Savard, spokesperson for the Department of Justice Canada.

"No police authorities were contacted in the three countries as there was no clear crime to report."

The soapstone carvings of a whale and a bear were chosen by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould from a federal 'gift bank' shortly before her official trip to New Zealand in 2016.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The carvings, along with assorted other gifts, were supposed to travel to New Zealand with Michelle Douglas, the department's director of international relations.

"The bag that contained the gifts was delayed in the flight process," Douglas said in an internal Justice Department note documenting the incident.

Broken beyond repair

"Indeed, it was curiously separated from my luggage and the DM's [deputy minister's] luggage … the 'gift bag' oddly did not arrive on my flight."

A missing-bag claim was filed and the airline delivered it the next day to Douglas's hotel room.

"Sadly, the bag had been opened and two of the soapstone sculptures were vandalized and broken beyond repair," Douglas wrote in her report. "It appears totally deliberate. The gift boxes were totally undamaged but the 'stuffing' inside the boxes was removed and shoved into the bag.

"Such a sad act. I have no idea why someone would do this! I showed the DM as well and we were both pretty shocked."

For security reasons, [Canadian Heritage] ... does not disclose information on lost or stolen items from its gift bank.-  Dominique Tessier, Canadian Heritage spokesperson

CBC News obtained internal documents about the August 2016 incident through the Access to Information Act. The material was requested in September 2016, but the department took more than a year to respond — and only after an intervention by the information commissioner of Canada.

The whale was valued at $500, the bear at $414.98. The Canadian Heritage Department (PCH), which runs the gift bank, said it could not provide photos of the sculptures.

Canadian Heritage also declined to say how often such incidents happen.

"For security reasons, PCH does not disclose information on lost or stolen items from its gift bank," said spokesperson Dominique Tessier.

John Key, then New Zealand's prime minister, was later sent a replacement Inuit carving. (David Rowland/SNPA via AP)

Replacement gifts — another soapstone bear and whale, each valued at about $500 — were later shipped successfully to New Zealand for presentation to then-prime minister John Key and then-attorney general Christopher Finlayson.

The mysterious destruction of the Inuit art happened during a visit which saw Wilson-Raybould discuss the mistreatment of Canada's Indigenous peoples, including the "over-representation of Indigenous people as both accused and victims in the criminal justice system."

The minister also met with Maori leaders in New Zealand during the trip, which ran from Aug. 26 to Sept. 6, 2016.

Canadian Heritage's gift bank carries about 1,300 items, with a current value of $132,000 for the entire inventory. The items represent arts, culture and manufacturing across Canada, and the collection has many pieces of Indigenous arts and crafts.

The gifts are meant to be given during any meeting between a minister or deputy minister and a foreign counterpart. Individual gifts cannot exceed a value of $500 when presented abroad, or $300 when presented in Canada.

Wilson-Raybould withdrew 11 gifts from the bank for her trip, including the two damaged items, and later returned some of them, for a net cost of $1,325.31. Most of the items she chose were Indigenous artworks.

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

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