Premier stops controversial museum project: ‘I made the wrong call’

The province has called off the controversial $789-million Royal B.C. Museum project following intense public backlash.

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After insisting for weeks the only way to protect B.C.’s history was a $789-million replacement of the Royal B.C. Museum, Premier John Horgan backtracked Wednesday, stopping the project and taking responsibility for misjudging public support.

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“We made choices based on the best information at hand and we thought we had it right,” Horgan said at a news conference in Victoria. “Clearly, we did not. I’ve heard the people of British Columbia quite clearly that we were making the wrong decision at the wrong time.

“I made the wrong call.”

While critics said the climb down was the right move, they said the damage is done.

The province will start over and ask the Royal B.C. Museum to fully consult with the public before deciding on the future of the building, which Horgan said remains in desperate need of modernization.

He said he took full responsibility for the bad timing of the project, which came during an affordability crisis that has left British Columbians struggling to pay higher gas and food prices.

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“With all of the other challenges that they are facing in their daily lives — gas prices, food prices, rent, mortgage payments and the prospect of increased interest rates, challenges in health care — the public felt that we were putting all those to one side to focus on the museum,” Horgan said. “That wasn’t the case, but that was the perception. 

“I believe the right way to go is to step back, take responsibility as the head of the government, and see where the consultation takes us.”

Horgan had been under intense pressure to halt the project, with many saying the government should first spend public dollars on fixing health care problems and seismically upgrading schools.

There was no public consultation before the surprise announcement on May 13 that the 54-year-old museum would be closed, torn down and replaced by 2030.

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The decision to scrap the project was made at a cabinet meeting on Monday, but Horgan said he’s been thinking of the negative response since a week after the May 13 announcement when the project had “landed with a thud.”

Horgan said Wednesday he did not want the museum to become a “laugh line at a party” or a political football.

The about-face means the museum will not close on Sept. 6. The province, however, will still go ahead with building a new $224-million archives and collection building in Colwood, a suburb of Victoria.

B.C. Liberal leader Kevin Falcon, who called for the “vanity museum boondoggle” to be cancelled, told reporters he’s happy the project has been put on ice, but this is “not a leadership moment” for Horgan.

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Falcon is concerned the government is going to kick the project down the road “until the temperature goes down,” go through a “sham” consultation process and rebuild anyway.

Falcon noted the premier has prejudged the outcome of any consultation process by declaring he’s not in favour of a museum renovation.

Despite two weeks of grilling in question period during the end of the spring session and angry emails from constituents across the province, Horgan and Tourism Minister Melanie Mark had insisted the province’s “collective history” is at risk because the aging museum is seismically unsound and at risk of flooding.

B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen said, “The damage is done.”

Horgan and Mark “made it sound like it was going to fall down and there was asbestos in the air,” Olsen said. “They have to be held accountable to all the things that they said while defending this project.”

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David Black, a political communication expert and Royal Roads University professor, said it’s a wise move politically to push back the museum replacement following its “shambolic” roll out.

The New Democrats could not ignore the results of an Angus Reid poll released last week showing 69 per cent of British Columbians oppose the costly rebuild of the Royal B.C. Museum and are more concerned with inflation, health care and housing affordability.

“That’s a damning number on any issue,” Black said.

The $789-million price shocked taxpayers and had it gone ahead, the project would have been the most expensive museum project in Canadian history in straight, non-inflated dollars.

In response to concerns that the public was left in the dark about the $789-million cost, Mark released the business case on May 25 which showed revitalizing or repairing the aging buildings would cost as much or even more than building a new museum.

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“We will simply not kick this project down the road,” Mark said at the time. “There is a risk to doing nothing.”

However, critics pointed out there are 250 schools in B.C. awaiting seismic upgrades.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education confirmed it is delaying seven previously promised new schools and seismic upgrades of existing schools because of the financial impacts of the pandemic and last year’s catastrophic flooding. That was despite Horgan saying on June 7 there is no constraint on school capital budgets.

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