Repatriation and racism at the Royal BC Museum

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Despite commitment to change, report finds RBCM remains an unsafe workplace for Indigenous people

Royal BC Museum
Photo by Sie Douglas-Fish.

Since 1886, the Royal B.C. Museum (RBCM) has operated on the unceded lands of the Lekwungen people. The museum accumulated a collection of thousands of remains of Indigenous people, along with cultural and historical items. In many instances, these items or remains were not taken with the consent of Indigenous peoples. 

Though there have been recent success stories of repatriation, the inner workings of the RBCM have been called into question.

In the past year, previous RBCM employees have alleged the museum was systemically racist and upheld white supremacy. Former Head of the First Nations Department and Repatriation Lucy Bell and former Curator of Indigenous Collections Troy Sebastian both alleged the museum’s internal dynamics made them feel as if the museum was a bastion of white supremacy and an unsafe workspace for Indigenous people. These allegations came after the Royal B.C. Museum released the province’s first-ever repatriation handbook, published in 2019, and committed themselves to reconciliation. Bell resigned in July 2020 and Sebastian did not renew his contract in Feb. 2021. 

A year after Bell’s allegations came forward and following a third-party investigation, the RBCM has promised some changes. But the claims of racism and the conversations around Indigenous reparation point to a broader question: can museums ever be true agents of reconciliation and repatriation? 

History of Repatriation at the RBCM

Although the history of museums is an ancient one, the rise of western museums is very recent. In the 19th century, when the Canadian government outlawed Potlatches and other cultural practices, the consequence for participation was the confiscation of treasures. These treasures would then be put into museums.

Beyond this, the colonial state would often hire anthropologists, collectors, and land surveyors to collect items and remains from Indigenous cultures. These items and remains would also be put into museums. 

According to a 2019 article in the CBC, museums all over the province, including the RBCM, non-consensually took a large amount of remains and cultural items from Indigenous communities during the potlatch ban from 1885-1951. 

The RBCM began repatriating the remains of Indigenous peoples from all over B.C. in 1990. That year remains of several ancestors were returned to the Haida people and the Okanagan Tribal Council, along with cultural items.

In the last 30 years, the RBCM has worked with local nations on a variety of different projects from the repatriation of human remains, facilitation of modern treaties, and hosting groups from local nations to view the collections of stolen items the museum still holds.  Over 1,000 ancestral remains have been repatriated so far.

In July 2019, in collaboration with the Haida Gwaii Museum (HGM), the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, and the Indigenous Advisory and Advocacy Committee, the RBCM released the repatriation handbook. This document is designed to be a guide for Indigenous nations within the lands known as British Columbia and beyond to participate in repatriation with museums that possess remains and cultural items. The handbook includes letter examples that can be sent to museums, examples of repatriation successes, how to effectively write grant applications, and how to plan for the repatriation process.

Jisgaang Nika Collison, the executive director of the Haida Gwaii Museum and co-chair of the Haida repatriation committee, was one of the handbook’s authors. Jisgaang highlighted a particular section of the handbook that details the rise of museums in North America.

“It gives a history of museums and the development of Western museums, which were a part of the Canadian project of genocide against Indigenous peoples,” she said. “That’s really important because it’s better to understand that museums are built on violence and racism.”

The foundations of racism that western museums were built on are still there. The recent allegations coming out of the RBCM have these same racist undertones.

Recent Reports of Racism within the RBCM

In July 2020, a year after the RBCM and the HGM released the repatriation handbook, the resignation of Lucy Bell exposed many issues with the museum’s treatment of Indigenous employees.

Bell says she witnessed and was subjected to frequent bullying, systemic racism, and microaggressions. She alleges that this behaviour was present among executives and staff at all levels of the museum, not just one or two bad apples. 

After Bell’s resignation, the RBCM launched an investigation. Dan Muzyka, the acting CEO of the museum expressed shock and disapproval of Belle’s allegations in a press release.  Both Bell and the RBCM did not respond to the Martlet’s requests for comment.

Six months later, another employee came forward with more allegations of racism. 

Nupqu ʔa·kǂam̓, or Troy Sebastian, was the Curator of the Indigenous Collection until his contract ended in February 2021. At the beginning of his last week in the position, Nupqu ʔa·kǂam̓ detailed his experiences at the museum in a Twitter thread.

Within the thread, he claimed he had the same experience with bullying, systematic racism, and microaggressions as Bell. He deemed the RBCM a “wicked place” and wrote that things had only gotten worse after Bell left.

Calling out the RBCM executives, Sebastian claimed that any promises made to do with acting on allegations were false and were simply an illusion for the public.

Following Sebastian’s comments, there was another flurry of criticism towards the museum. Organizations like the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Leadership Council expressed concern with the ongoing racism at the museum.

The Chief Executive Officer at the time, Jack Lohman, resigned from his role the day after Sebastian’s thread. He did not cite Sebastian’s exposure as his reason for leaving. 

The RBCM promised to act. But until June 29, 2021, they hadn’t made many public announcements about their progress. 

The RBCM’s Plan Forward

On June 29, 2021, the RBCM released a report in response to the allegations made against the museum. This report was created as a result of a third party investigation at the RBCM that started in Sept. 2020. This report, along with a webpage released in May, are titled “A Focus for Change.”

Before this, the last significant comments made by the RBCM regarding the allegations of racism were in Dec. 2020. In these comments, Dan Muzyka, the board chairman at the RBCM, told the Times Colonist that the results of a staff survey regarding racism were “not good.”

For months after Sebastian’s public comments, the Martlet attempted to reach Muzyka or a representative of the museum. Every time a request was sent, it was either denied or postponed to an uncertain date.  The RBCM sent the Martlet a link to a webpage titled “A Focus for Change,” on May 27, 2021.

The webpage appears to be a response to the allegations of racism, and the actions that the RBCM will take going forward to combat institutional racism.

In the introductory paragraphs, the webpage claims “over the years, our organization has made people feel unwanted, disrespected and unheard. We are sorry. We will do better.”

Included is a timeline for staff training over the next year. There are several training sessions that will happen through 2021 like psychological safety, whiteness at work, microaggressions, and intercultural skills, among many others.

There is also information on further resources being provided to the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation department. These resources will come with more lines of communication with the Indigenous Advocacy and Advisory Committee, and the support of repatriation and decolonization work.

Despite the webpage addressing the problems with racism exposed in the last year, and directly addressing commitments to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), called to do so by Sebastian in his public statements, the webpage was uploaded without any official announcement. A link to the webpage is not on the RBCM’s website’s homepage, either. It is under the “About” tab without any further context.

Most recently, the RBCM released the report that has been alluded to several times by Muzyka and other museum representatives. The report is a 31-page document that directly acknowledges Bell’s resignation speech, and the issues that she highlighted at the museum. 

Though some key changes are as vague as “accelerating the decolonization of the museum,” there are some tangible changes within the report. These include, the hiring of new Indigenous Collection Managers, an Indigenous archivist, a repatriation specialist, and a Director or Vice President of Indigenous Partnerships and DRIPA Implementation.

Pages 20 to 27 include background, results, and conclusions of a third-party investigation into racism at the museum. The summary of findings for the investigation also echo all concerns by Bell and Sebastian. The investigators concluded “that the Organization [the RBCM] as a workplace is not a culturally safe environment, and it seems likely that significant work will be needed to bring the [RBCM] into compliance with its mandate to follow DRIPA.”

The report directly mentions results of the staff survey that RBCM representatives had previously been unable to speak on. The survey and investigation  results echo concerns brought to light by Bell and Sebastian. 

Tokenization of Indigenous employees, microaggressions, racial discrimination, and harassment were all reported by staff involved. The results of the survey also mention a lack of education on LGBTQ2+ identities and issues, and a lack of physiological safety for women working at the RBCM compared to men. 

The timeline for the changes beyond staff training sessions remain unclear, or what effect they will ultimately have on combating anti-Indigenous and institutional racism within the organization.

Repatriation and Relations at the Haida Gwaii Museum

There are other museums that are much more Indigenous-centered than the RBCM. Because they focus on Indigenous voices and concerns, they do not have to grapple with the same colonial legacy. 

The Haida Gwaii Museum, also known as Xaayda Saahlinda Naay or “Saving Things House,” was founded in 1976. The HGM holds a huge collection of contemporary and historical Haida art and cultural items.

“To the community, via the museum, we’re appointed to caretake these treasures on behalf of our nation. We repatriate collectively, so it’s a big honour,” Jisgaang said.

The HGM is not simply a museum. There is a story-telling department, a food, clean water, and energy sovereignty department, a cartography department, and a mentor-apprentice program for the Haida language.

“We’re very active within our community, and fully driven by our community,” Jisgaang said.

Most of the HGM’s collection was collected through donations from community members. Jisgaang told the Martlet that these items were donated from both Haida and settlers.

“It was active by people in the community donating what was left of their treasures, not everything, but they put something so [the HGM] had something. Our settler communities on Haida Gwaii, who had things both settler and Haida in their own personal households [also donated to the museum],” Jisgaang said. 

Though the HGM is itself a museum, they work on behalf of the Haida people to secure remains and cultural items from museums nationally and internationally.

For over 20 years, the HGM prioritized bringing ancestral remains back to Haida Gwaii. The repatriation of cultural items is quite new to the HGM.

“We’re really new in starting up on the repatriation of our belongings from museums, because we took a big break to bring home our ancestors,” Jisgaang said. 

Much of the repatriation work happens with guidance from Haida nation elders and the community. 

“To the community, via the museum, we’re appointed to caretake these treasures on behalf of our nation. We repatriate collectively, so it’s a big honour,” Jisgaang said.

The ways in which repatriation happens are very different at the RBCM and the HGM. The RBCM is in possession of many stolen artifacts and remains that were acquired by force. Repatriation at the RBCM involves returning these artifacts and remains to the nations that they were stolen from. For the HGM, repatriation is the act of acquiring Haida artifacts and remains from the museums that stole them. The HGM will then hold these artifacts on behalf of the Haida nation. 

When asked what needed to be done to eliminate institutional racism in museums, Jisgaang said there are many avenues. She ended her answer on the note that it was the responsibility of the institutions.

“We’ve already seen museums being outed for racism […] We’ve seen everything. Now there’s no excuse, right? Now that they know there’s no excuse, don’t wait. Don’t make more people retraumatize themselves by going public with the abuses they suffer under harmful, racist systems. Be proactive, make the change. Don’t wait until you’re embarrassed in the public.”

Museums in British Columbia grapple with colonial legacies

Several other museums in the province engage in repatriation programs and attempt to eliminate institutional racism.

Sophia Maher, the general manager of the Nanaimo Museum (NM), described the organization’s relationship with the Snuneymuxw people. The NM has had a memorandum of understanding with Snuneymuxw First Nation since the 1990s, and has constant communication with Snuneymuxw elders and people. Geraldine Manson, the Good family, William Boyd, and Bill White were all credited by Maher for their work in evolving the information put out by the NM. 

The Indigenous collection at the NM is held in trust for the Snuneymuwx. This means that should there ever come a time that the Snuneymuwx wanted the collection, they could have it. The collection is also entirely accessible when needed for ceremonies and other events. 

“Maybe one day there could be a cultural centre, something like that, we would then be able to transition those right over to them,” Maher said. “There’s no issue there.”

Sharon Fortney, curator of  Indigenous collections and engagement at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), said she has seen meaningful changes in the organization’s operations.

The MOV, like the RBCM, has a history spanning back to the 19th century in B.C. and around the world. According to Fortney, the collection mainly began with the stolen possessions of missionaries from places in Asia (such as India), from Africa, and from Turtle Island. 

Though the relationship between the MOV and the local nations of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ have dropped off in the past, the nations and the museum have been working together for several years.

“In the early 2000s, the museum had done outreach to the three nations, and they tried to sign a protocol agreement with the three of them,” Fortney said. “ They were not as successful back then with keeping that kind of momentum going, but they did try.”

Repatriation is not new for the MOV. The museum does hold ancestral remains of nations from the Vancouver area and beyond, which they are actively reaching out to communities to engage in repatriation. 

“We do have ancestral remains from other areas on the coast,” Fortney said. “And we are contacting those communities and asking them for advice and offering to repatriate if they’re ready for that work. And there have been several repatriations with ancestral remains going back decades.”

Like the RBCM, the MOV struggles with a colonial history and being a workplace that has not always been welcoming to Indigenous workers. 

Fortney told the Martlet that when she worked for the MOV in the early 2000s it was a toxic workplace. Four years ago, when Fortney began working at the MOV again, she says team members were much better and willing to learn.

“I think the museum is a reflection of the people who work there. [When I worked here in 2002] I found it really toxic. I had to purposefully leave the museum every day at lunch for at least an hour. It was really difficult to work here,” Fortney said. 

Since then, she says the museum has greatly improved. “I’ve worked for decades as a contractor, and this is my first permanent position I’ve ever had as a museum professional. I based my position on the team that is here now. Vivianne Gosselin [the director of collections and exhibitions for the MOV], having worked with her, and she’s very fair and respectful on how she was with community members.”

When asked how museums can be safer places for Indigenous peoples, and how museums can aid in the process of reconciliation, Maher told the Martlet that listening, learning, and resourcing are the most important aspects.

Maher also commented on the reckonings that are occuring in larger museums, and what it means for all museums on Turtle Island. Maher says having a simple Indigenous exhibit is not enough, and that through consultation, it needs to be constantly changing to accurately reflect history. 

“All museums have to be very careful not to look at things that are going on in some of these larger museums and think, ‘Oh, thank goodness that’s not happening here.’ We need to look at those and learn […] and really act on that. I think that’s our responsibility,” Maher said.