I would like you to consider for a moment a poem.
One of the losses in the story of Canadian literature was the murder, at the hands of her husband, of the brilliant, Vancouver-born poet Pat Lowther. She herself is a loss—and I will take up the issue of cultural loss in a moment. But she also has a sharp eye for describing loss: for describing the long movement of history and what may so easily, if we are not careful to preserve it, disappear.
In her “Elegy for the South Valley”, Pat Lowther writes that in Canada “we have no centuries / here a few generations / do for antiquity.”
In the poem—as the rains “keep on and on” and the South Valley silts up—we see
the dam that served
a mine that serviced empire
crumbling slowly deep
deep in the bush
for its time
for this country
it’s a pyramid
it’s Tenochtitlan going back
to the bush and the rain.
This is, I think, quite astonishing, for here is the recognition that the culture that surrounds us, however plain, however modest, however workmanlike, is a monument. A concrete dam in British Columbia is an Egyptian pyramid. It is the capital of Aztec Mexico. And like them, though in only “a few generations”, it too can disappear into the wilderness.
 Pat Lowther, “Elegy for the South Valley” in Time Capsule: New and Selected Poems (Victoria, BC: Polestar Book Publishers, 1996), pp.205–7.
On the occasion of their first meeting, November 20, 2017.
Distinguished chiefs, leaders and artists,
On behalf of our Chair Susan Knott, the museum’s board, our staff and our volunteers, allow me to begin by thanking you for coming today and allow me to acknowledge the importance of the traditional land and customs of the Songhees and Esquimalt people.
You are all very welcome at the museum.
How fortunate we are that our cultural institution has such strong ties to each of you. Many of you have worked with and contributed to the museum over the years. On behalf of generations of staff, volunteers and visitors, thank you for this support.
As many of you know, the Royal BC Museum is a major provincial and national cultural institution, charged with researching, collecting, preserving and exhibiting the historical evidence of British Columbia. It is a house of evidence and that is why Indigenous peoples, their knowledge systems, customs and languages have a special place here.
The Royal BC Museum focuses on three interrelated subject areas: life, society and nature. In the view of both the board and the CEO, these three themes all focus on the interaction of people with the environment.
The museum exists to help society understand change. It is an educational institution strengthening society through cultural and scientific understanding—helping to create the society of the future.
Indigenous peoples stand at the frontlines of change today. Social and economic change. Environmental change. That is why I believe you must be heard inside our institution too.
The museum holds a diverse range of Indigenous evidence including historic archives, artworks, images, audio tapes, films and what used to be labelled ‘ethnographic material’. Many of these are sacred and precious treasures, including the remains of 727 Indigenous people—ancestral remains that need to make their way back home. The First Peoples gallery and the Our Living Languages exhibition are core displays that interpret the diverse civilizations that make up British Columbia. In the course of its activities, the museum undertakes a diverse range of engagements with Indigenous stakeholders.
Long before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the museum recognized that Indigenous people have cultural and intellectual property rights to their own heritage. We recognized that Indigenous people have rights in a range of museum activities, too: the acquisition of collections, exhibitions, research and learning programs. These are rights in terms of access and control, enshrined in a document that a previous generation called the Royal BC Museum “Operating Policy” and which Lucy* is now updating to reflect a new generation’s approach.
Allow me, as CEO, on this historic occasion for the museum, to acknowledge and recognize—possibly for the first time on record—that the intellectual cultural property rights to control both the tangible and the intangible aspects of the objects, archives and the knowledge in the museum do not belong to us but conform with Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Canada is a signatory, which states:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.
As CEO let me add that these rights are perpetual and form a living heritage.
For all the Indigenous cultural evidence we acquire, interpret and display, the intellectual cultural property rights belong with Indigenous peoples, their communities and the First Nations that speak for the material.
The museum is committed to returning cultural material, Indigenous human remains and other treasures to their communities and places of origin, and we recognize that material associated with deceased people requires special and respectful arrangements.
The museum seeks to ensure that its interpretations of Indigenous cultural material are respectful of the authenticity and integrity of that material.
It is then, with considerable delight, that I welcome the FNAC, which is comprised of Indigenous experts and representatives, each of whom has experience in advising institutions.
As part of its role I hope the FNAC will review the museum’s application of Indigenous cultural rights and the above core principles of our approach. The museum in turn will regularly report to the FNAC on its performance against these principles, including any feedback and or complaints.
I thank you for your engagement and for all your help.
*Lucy Bell is the Head of First Nations and Repatriation at the Royal BC Museum and Archives.
I gave a speech in Beijing last month to mark the opening of the Canada-China Cultural Dialogue.
“British Columbia is Canada’s Pacific province. It shares a history with China; Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, is the second oldest Chinatown in North America. Chinese immigrants came looking for gold here in the 19th century and built the famous railway across Canada. Today, the economic links between China and British Columbia and indeed Canada have never been stronger. But what should our cultural relations look like? What should the objectives of our cultural policy focus on and specifically museums? Professor Jack Lohman outlines some thoughts for discussion.”