B.C.’s largest dinosaur museum operates in an old elementary school gymnasium in Tumbler Ridge, where local governments, volunteers and others are constantly fundraising to keep the doors open and palaeontologists on staff. The provincial government hasn’t provided a cent in operating funding, despite multiple requests over several years.
So when Premier John Horgan abruptly announced a $1 billion rebuild of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria last week, those in B.C.’s northeast who are perpetually scraping together funds to make the province’s top collection of dinosaur fossils available to the public, were stunned.
“It’s certainly a kick in the teeth for a lot of people in the North,” said Keith Bertrand, Tumbler Ridge’s mayor. “Especially our volunteers.”
The enormous price-tag for a new museum that the Opposition BC Liberals have coined “a vanity project in the premier’s backyard” has turned into an equally-enormous political headache for the BC NDP government.
At the heart of the issue is a question of priorities, and whether, during record-high inflation, skyrocketing gas prices and a healthcare system on the brink of collapse, the government should be spending that $1 billion on more important matters.
It’s especially galling for people outside Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria, who can only watch with envy as a museum project few were asking for, without a design, and with an eight-year timeline, leapfrogs ahead of virtually every other cultural project in the province.
The Royal BC Museum rebuild project secured not only $789 million for a new public exhibition hall in the NDP-stronghold of Victoria, but also more than $200 million for a museum archive on the border of Premier John Horgan’s riding of Langford-Juan de Fuca.
“There’s a huge disconnect,” said Bertrand. “Everybody in the North feels that.”
The special treatment for NDP-friendly Victoria has already formed part of the Opposition Liberal’s critique of the project, and will undoubtedly become a common refrain on the summer barbeque circuit, where communities across the province bemoan a lack of funding for local projects.
Begging for funding
“Museums across this province were hoping that instead of having to beg and beg and repeatedly beg the minister for $50,000 here or $25,000 there, that on Friday they might have an announcement that supported museums across this province, instead of a billion-dollar vanity museum project for the premier that has no business plan, no timelines and no expectation it will even be done properly,” Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar said during debate in the house this week.
He’s helped facilitate several meetings with local officials representing the museum and the government, in the hopes the District of Tumbler Ridge (which contributes $220,000 a year to the project) and the local regional district (which adds another $100,000 annually) could get some help footing the bill for precious fossils that should, in theory, be partly the provincial government’s responsibility.
“They’ve got the business case, they’ve got a great story to tell, and I brought them down here – but when they met with the ministers in government they were told there was no money,” said Bernier.
Premier Horgan has defended the museum project in part by explaining the esoteric budgetary difference between operating funds used to provide services like health care, and capital funds that serve as long-term loans to build infrastructure projects like the new museum.
The Tumbler Ridge museum has asked for both – annual operating help and capital funds to grow beyond an old elementary school – and been denied, said Bernier.
The “poor cousin”
Across the province, there are numerous other capital projects unfunded while the museum proceeds, including 250 K-12 schools at risk of seismic damage in an earthquake that the province has earmarked for capital renovations but has lacked the money to fix.
All of this taps into a larger frustration people in B.C.’s interior and north feel at being ignored by the NDP government, which focuses almost entirely on suburban voters in Metro Vancouver and Victoria, said Bernier. “We constantly hear that in rural B.C.”
“Whether it’s the Lower Mainland or Victoria, we know there’s a population base that needs to be served with a certain amount of infrastructure, nobody argues that,” said Bernier. “But what people do get upset and frustrated with is, it shouldn’t be one or the other. And it always continues to be that way.
“We can’t be the resource sector that supplies all the money to build these projects and get nothing in return,” he said.
“Now under the NPD, people feel like they are the poor cousin that gets left in the background and not thought of.”