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British Columbia’s rejection of Britain

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AFTER thirteen years in Northern Ireland where I began, I’ve returned to British Columbia and its capital Victoria on Vancouver Island. In my absence the city has undergone a sea-change.

When I left, the vast Empress Hotel on the harbour was the jewel in the city’s tourist crown. Opened in 1908, it was one of the majestic railhead hotels built across the country by the Canadian Pacific Railway whose steel rails sewed this sprawling landmass together. 

The Empress was deemed a National Historical Site in 1981. One of its pleasures was the Bengal Room, a lounge redolent of the Raj with a tiger skin on the wall and Nehru-jacketed waiters who served crafted cocktails. Five years ago, the Room disappeared and now goes unmentioned in the Empress’s Wikipedia entry. The hotel itself has vanished from Tourism Victoria’s list of great places to visit, though under ‘Accommodation’ you are still, discreetly, invited to book a room there. 

With the Bengal Room have gone the Union Jack-adorned red Routemasters that trundled sightseers around downtown, and the shops that sold British memorabilia to the mainly British and American tourists.  

The tourist lure until recently was that Victoria was an unchanging remnant of the Empire, the whole harbour district a kind of British folk museum which American visitors, ironically, relished because the colourful colonial presence it showcased was of yesteryear. The city’s mayor tells us that from now on the main attractions of Victoria will be its new Asian presence (rather than the rackety Chinatown remnant of Nationalist China), its diverse cuisines and above all its indigenous, pre-British culture. Fair enough, but what is happening is not just a tourist makeover. It is a larger programme of cultural reassignment being rolled out across the city and province. 

One of the ostensible reasons for cancelling, renaming and replacing is to redress the injustices done to the native people during the settlement of Canada. These are certainly long overdue. However blame is distributed, the lot of First Nations Canadians has not been an enviable one, though historically better than that of fellow-natives south of the border. 

This was the motive behind the 2018 removal of the statue in Victoria City Hall of the hitherto revered John A MacDonald, ‘Father of Confederation’ and first Prime Minister of Canada. His sin was to support the Indian residential schools run by the religious orders, and it cancels all his nation-founding virtues. 

It was also behind the decision to rename Trutch Streets in Victoria and Vancouver that commemorated the English-born first Lieutenant-Governor of BC (1871-76), Joseph Trutch, who treated Indian land claims with contempt. The Victoria thoroughfare is to be called Truth Street, a clever single-letter subtraction that might suggest the ethical certainty with which the unelected campaigners approach their self-appointed task. There is a faint Orwellianism about Truth Street and one wonders if Equity Avenue, Inclusion Boulevard or Diversity Place can be far behind?  

The other motive seems to be the desire to delete the British origins of British Columbia. There are campaigns to change the names of both the province and its capital. The province’s name offends twice over: for commemorating British settlement and that arch-villain Christopher Columbus. 

A 200-yard stroll from the Empress we can see the second motive in action in the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM), until recently the favourite tourist destination. Some weeks ago the museum began emptying its galleries housing the replica of George Vancouver’s ship HMS Discovery and the replica of Victoria’s ‘Old Town’.

The announced plan was to close the museum gradually, while it was re-stocked in order to ‘Decolonize & Indigenize’ it in response to the call from Indigenous leaders ‘to increase cultural safety and ensure the museum is a welcome place for everyone’. Who could object to the latter, though oddly the medical meanings of health and safety are now extended to culture, this of a piece with protecting students at university and visitors to museums from any representation of the world that displays inequality, hardship or complexity.  

D & I was a radical enough plan, but the museum then sprang upon unsuspecting politicians and citizens the instant closure of the museum (now a fait accompli) and the hasty plan to demolish the splendid building opened in 1968 and re-open at a cost of $900million in a new building in 2030. The honorific ‘Royal’ in the museum’s name was likely to go, the museum hinted.

In response to British Columbians’ outrage, the museum and the Minister for Tourism suddenly claimed demolition had to do with earthquake precautions, asbestos concerns and the failure of the existing museum to be a world-class institution, the last demonstrably false. The Tourism Minister (the inaugural First Nations woman elected in BC) denied she had ever uttered the word ‘decolonize’, only for a local reporter to post examples of her stating ‘Decolonization’ as the prime objective of the museum makeover. It is a reasonable suspicion that the very architecture of the existing building is seen as colonialist.

Here is a pattern repeated across the English-speaking world. The dizzying speed of cultural replacement is accompanied by the peremptory way in which resistance is rebuffed, and the arrogance with which a cultural coup takes precedence over all else; in BC one can wait five years to find a GP and the cost of living has rocketed. 

Perhaps a sociologist of the future will explain the instant unanimity among officials, the keenest of whom seem to be those in public service. Museum administrators and curators from elsewhere swarmed to support the proposed new Decolonised & Indigenized museum. That unanimity stretches to head librarians, university presidents, deans and department heads, arts council chiefs, chairs of charitable cultural organisations (the National Trust springs to mind), mayors and town councillors – our new culture-givers and all singing in astonishing concert. 

In Canada, the long overdue redress of First Nations grievances is spearheaded by educated, middle-class Euro-Canadians to the extent that one wonders if here is an ironic form of cultural appropriation. Some Indigenous commentators see no need for a billion-dollar museum in lieu of simply returning artefacts to the relevant First Nations with a change of attitude from condescension to respect. 

This display of cultural self-immolation by westerners in positions of public power is also familiar. Individual cases of social injustice or the need for historical revision becomes a wholesale cancellation agenda. The ultimate aim is to rock and replace foundation narratives and belief systems, from the local to the Western worldwide. The template is assumed to be transnational and is applied equally across borders. (Witness the ready import of the Floyd episode and other American problems into the UK.) The fate of the RBCM is thus a provincial skirmish in a much broader culture war. So far Canadians have not made this objection to the proposed new museum, probably because it might seem to question the icons of Multiculturalism and Indigenisation and no one is ready to do that. 

The crudity and transculturalism of the agenda has become apparent even in Northern Ireland since I left eight months ago. At a recent Queen’s University-Northern Ireland Museums conference in Belfast, the Head of Curatorial at NI museums claimed that it is ‘imperative to decolonise [our] collections, sites, structures and activities . . . We absolutely should interrogate the British Empire and its legacy’.  But where did this imperative come from? She is appalled by ‘the spectre of colonial violence and injustice’ and believes that the museums’ task is to tackle racism through Decolonisation. This includes removing certain objects from public view, presumably out of shame, but perhaps to punish the pre-Decolonised visitor.

This is a legitimate subject for museum discussion, of course, but any return of objects to their faraway cultures of origin, or removal into storage, is always accompanied by denunciation of Britain and its colonial past.  Are the NI museums determined to apply the international template aware of the thinness of the local ice? The colonisation that is in the crosshairs of the RBCM is doorstep colonialism: the curators and the non-native population of the province are all products of the British coming to what became British Columbia: to Decolonise is logically to deplore one’s own past and present, and regret one’s very presence in the province. Yet the museum is pressing ahead.  

How will this play out in Northern Ireland, also the home of doorstep colonialism? The Decolonisation targets of speakers at the Queen’s-UM conference included ‘the dominance of British rule in Ireland’ and ‘anti-Irish racism in Britain’ and the Empire. 

How will the judgement-driven project of Decolonisation in the NI museums address the early 17th-century Plantation of Ulster and the Scots settlers, one of the three foundation narratives of the country, the others being the Siege of Derry (1689) and the successful repudiation of Home Rule as Rome Rule by north-east Ulster in 1912? And will the Decolonisation project be accompanied as it is in Canada by Indigenization?  If so, what forms precisely will the latter take? Taxpayers whose Department of Communities gave over £14million in 2018-19, over 80 per cent of their income, to the NI museums, have the right to know.

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John Wilson Foster
John Wilson Foster
Among John Wilson Foster's books are Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (Notting Hill Editions, 2014, New York Review Books, 2017) and The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland (co-ed, 2021).

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