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The Canadian premier John Horgan’s announcement that the troubled Royal British Columbia [BC] Museum in Victoria will be demolished and replaced by the most expensive museum in Canadian history has been met with criticism.

Horgan announced the $789m museum upgrade on 17 May but offered few specifics, prompting derision and outrage from critics, including the British Columbia Liberal Party leader Kevin Falcon, who called the development a “billion dollar vanity project”. Falcon added that he promised to cancel plans for the new museum if he were ever elected premier.

As the province slides into a post-pandemic depression and faces simultaneous healthcare and housing crises and rising inflation, Horgan admitted during a press conference on 20 May that the announcement “landed with a thud”.

He added, “I very much regret that the jewel of our collective history, the Royal BC Museum, has become a political football. It certainly was not our intention to appear to be tone deaf to the challenges British Columbians are facing.”

When asked why the museum was being demolished rather than renovated, Horgan cited seismic instability and hazardous materials like asbestos in the 1960s era building.

In a statement, Horgan justified the almost $1bn in costs, contributed by some federal subsidies, by citing “high efficiency HVAC systems” and the incorporation of “mass timber construction”. The statement also promises 1,950 construction jobs and more than 1,050 associated jobs.

The museum, which has always been a big draw for tourists, is now slated to close on 6 September and is expected to reopen in a new building in 2030. Local businesses are concerned about the impact this will have on tourism revenue.

While the timing of Horgan’s announcement was unfortunate, proposals for the museum’s modernisation have been in effect for the past five years. The 135-year-old institution has been plagued by allegations of bullying and racism, and a public apology was issued last June, a few months after former chief executive Jack Lohman stepped down, followed by the museum’s Indigenous collections curator Troy Sebastian.

There was some hope for a new chapter to begin following the appointment of new chief executive Alicia Dubois in February, but the ill-timed announcement has once again stoked controversy.

As for Queen Victoria, it would be hard to discern if she were amused or not. Her statue in front of the provincial legislature is still recovering from an attack by native rights and environmental activists last June, who splashed the likeness of the monarch with red paint and the words “land back” and “Lekwungen”, the name for local Indigenous people.

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