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January 9, 2024

Problems persist with BC South Asian museum consultations

Will ‘minority’ interests be protected?
By Zool Suleman
UFV – South Asian Canadian Legacy Project – Surrey Unveiling
Image Source: UFV – South Asian Canadian Legacy Project – Surrey Unveiling.

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The BC South Asian museum consultation process is in trouble once again.

In a November 21, 2023 news release, the responsible Minister, Lana Popham, refers to an “inclusive, responsive and transparent engagement process” to move forward “on this first-of-its-kind museum”. Results of the new two-phase process are to be provided by June 2024, just in time for the next provincial election expected to be called in the latter part of this year.

Sources that Rungh News contacted have referred to the first phase of this process, which ended in January 2024, as being a “shit show” reflecting “incompetence”.

Jinny Sims (Surrey-Panorama), Jagrup Brar (Surrey-Fleetwood), and Aman Singh (Richmond-Queensborough) made the museum promise as a part of their NDP political campaigns via a news release on October 20, 2020, in the midst of a provincial election campaign. All three were elected to become members of the current NDP government. The October 2020 news release referred to “many leaders, scholars, historians, and writers” as the source for the museum request. Rungh News previously wrote about the museum and asked the Ministry to provide sources for who had requested a museum. No clear answers were ever provided.

Not having answered the question of “why”, the Ministry is now moving onto the “how” stage of the process. A new paid advisory committee has been appointed to select a name, a location and to determine the purposes of the museum. The advisory committee will need to be very careful because while they can discuss the “purpose” of the museum, they cannot discuss what it will collect and exhibit or how it will operate. This committee, which could set in place multi-million-dollar spending decisions, includes Am Johal, Balbir Gurm, Haiqa Cheema, Harjit Dhillon, Haroon Khan, Harpo Mander, Jeevan Sangha, Jinder Oujla-Chalmers, Karimah Es Sabar, Parminder Virk, Renisa Mawani, Sahil Mroke and Upkar Tatlay.

On December 11, 2023 Rungh News wrote to the Ministry asking questions about this “transparent engagement process” and asked for more information about the public appointments, to a public process, in which the appointees had agreed to have their names “publicly communicated”. On December 19, Corinna Filion from the Ministry referred Rungh News back to the government website. Only names are provided on the government website without any further information as to why these individuals were appointed or what expertise they possess other than being self identified as “South Asian”. Filion also wrote that these appointees had experience with “community engagement and/or museum projects”.

On December 25, Rungh News again wrote to Corinna Filion requesting information about the members of this public advisory committee. Further, Rungh News asked if any appointment had any undergraduate, graduate or post graduate education on the subject of “museums” or “museology”. Did any appointee have any senior, decision-making experience at museums? Filion replied on January 3, 2024, still providing no details about the appointees and advised Rungh News to use a “search engine” to find out more about the appointees. Filion provided no reply to questions about committee members having any specific museum education or expertise.

Rungh News contacted advisory member Parminder Virk to confirm her identity since a web search resulted in several individuals with that name. Virk, who resides on Vancouver Island, confirmed that she was a member of the advisory and that Minister Lana Popham was “doing a good job”. In addition, Virk confirmed that she signed Minister Popham’s nomination forms for the 2020 provincial election. Minister Popham’s September 25, 2020 Facebook page posting refers to Virk as one of her “good friends”.

Even though Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra is not listed on the Ministry website as ever having being appointed to the advisory, Rungh News has confirmed with sources and with Dr. Sandhra herself that she resigned from the advisory. When asked to provide details to Rungh News, she replied that she would not comment to Rungh News for this story but would provide further comments “on her own terms” and had plenty to say and “no qualms about saying it”.

While the Ministry states that the advisory reflects the “diversity of the South Asian communities” in British Columbia, unasked, two of the sources stated that current representation on the advisory group was a problem. One self identified Sikh-Punjabi member stated that new members were needed since there were a “lot of Punjabi” on the committee, while another source on the committee referred to it as being “Sikh heavy”.

This issue of representation and “community” arises repeatedly in the museum story. Who should be consulted? Some South Asian cultural advocates keep referring to a community centred process without defining who is the “community” or what process they would prefer. On the topic of what is “South Asian”, the Minister continues to equivocate noting that the name is a “provisional placeholder” with “virtues” and “shortcomings” which “reveal” and “obscure” and which can be “unifying” and “divisive”. Yet, the Minister has chosen to appoint individuals who self-identify as “South Asian”, whatever that term means. Further, the Minister is proceeding to carry out a political promise for a “South Asian” museum without any definition of what “South Asian” means.

The SFU Centre for Dialogue provided a statement to Rungh News that the Centre’s role was limited to providing engagement advice and to gather input towards articulating an engagement plan. The SFU response acknowledges that “to-date” a significant majority of the advisory committee members are “Punjabi and/or Sikh” reflecting the larger demographic numbers in British Columbia but “there was strong consensus that ethnic/linguistic/religious ‘minorities’ within BC’s South Asian Canadian communities also need to be engaged and reflected in the Museum if they so choose.”

Conspicuously missing is how the representation of these “minorities” will be safeguarded in any future museum collection, curation, or operations process. The protection of “minority” South Asian interests is not permitted by the current terms of this “inclusive, transparent and multi-faceted” advisory process. The Ministry has confirmed that no minutes or documentation from the advisory’s deliberations will be released to the public. The public at large may end up having little input on the future of the South Asian museum. If the latter is true, this South Asian museum process is echoing the disastrous process this government followed on announcements related to the Royal BC Museum in May 2022.

Due to a pubic outcry, in June 2022, then Premier John Horgan withdrew ambitious rebuilding plans noting that the proposed Royal BC Museum plans had become “a political item rather than an item of pride for all British Columbians”. The proposed South Asian museum was founded on political promises made by NDP political candidates. For all concerned, the Royal BC Museum debacle offers a cautionary precedent.