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COMMENTARY: Dispute over beach carving is one of many miseries at Royal BC Museum

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WATCH: (Feb. 16, 2021) Former Finance Minister Carole James is taking on a new role outside of the political arena. – Feb 16, 2021

Things were looking up for Victoria’s Royal BC Museum last summer when a local man taking an early morning stroll on the beach made a remarkable discovery.

It was a 100-kilogram stone pillar, exposed at low tide with a light covering of seaweed, carved into a mysterious human face with bulging eyes and lips.

Bernhard Spalteholz took some pictures of his find and then notified the museum, which declared it an important discovery.

“This is a remarkable find with a remarkable story,” Jack Lohman, then the CEO of the museum, wrote in a now-deleted blog post that triggered excitement in the archeological community.

The museum said the stone pillar was likely a spiritual totem used by the local Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations, possibly displayed on the beach to attract migrating salmon.

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Read more: Outgoing Royal BC Museum Indigenous collection curator calls it a ‘wicked’ place

The discovery brought some badly needed happiness to a museum struggling through a COVID-19 pandemic that decimated attendance numbers at one of the B.C. capital’s top tourist destinations.

But the excitement waned after Victoria artist Ray Boudreau spotted a picture of the carving in the local newspaper — and immediately recognized it as his own work.

“I knew right away that it was my carving,” Boudreau told me, saying he carved the rock on the beach in 2017 over a period of three days.

He said he returned to the beach to continue the sculpture on the fourth day, but the rock was gone.

“I figured someone had taken it,” said Boudreau, who had made earlier rock carvings on local beaches.

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He showed me a cellphone photo of the original carving — date-stamped Jan. 23, 2017 — and it looks identical to the carving “discovered” on the beach more than three years later, minus the seaweed.

“You can still see the fresh chisel marks on it,” he said, noting that he meant for the sculpture to be a symbol of unity.

I asked him what went through his mind when he heard the museum had declared the sculpture to be a historic archeological discovery.

“At first I thought, ‘Well, maybe I won’t say anything and just let this have a life of its own.’ But then my friend said to me, ‘You have to tell them! This is your work!'”

Read more: First Nations leaders condemn widespread reports of racism at Royal BC Museum

He decided to alert the museum, which has now launched an investigation.

“The review into the provenance of the stone pillar is ongoing,” the museum said in a brief statement.

Things went from bad to worse when Lohman — the CEO who announced and then un-announced the pillar’s discovery — was forced to resign over accusations of institutional racism at the museum.

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The resignation came after an outside consultant declared the institution a “dysfunctional and toxic workplace characterized by a culture of fear and distrust.”

The consultant had been brought in after the museum’s head of Indigenous collections and repatriation had resigned, citing institutional racism and discrimination. The museum’s Indigenous collections curator also resigned.

Read more: Ex-finance minister Carole James named to Royal BC Museum board amid racism controversy

Now the B.C. government has stepped in, appointing former provincial finance minister Carole James — who is of Metis heritage — to the museum’s board of directors.

“The museum has challenges,” James said. “I’m looking forward to contributing to the board and being able to resolve those issues.”

She would appear to have a lot of work to do to repair the museum’s shattered internal structure and damaged reputation.

A small start might be clearing up the dispute over the stone pillar, which Boudreau says he would like to see again.

“I haven’t heard from the museum,” he said.

“But I wouldn’t mind having it back, and seeing what kind of life it has after that.”

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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