Preserving Our Past Essential to Our Future

Published in the Victoria Times Colonist, May 26, 2005

By John Lutz

What is a people or a province, without a story, without a history? A shared story is what makes us a people: British Columbians. Alongside are our separate stories which make us different peoples within the larger whole: the First Nations and the mosaic of other peoples who comprise the province. Together, these stories of our history -- tell us who we are. Without a sense of a shared past we have no common future and condemn ourselves to competing for the spoils.

Government has no role more important than to ensure our future and this can only be accomplished by bringing us together as British Columbians, and preserving our stories. Why then have our governments in BC tried to run from the past? We are asked not to worry about the crumbling state of our heritage properties, the abandonment of heritage programs, under-funded museums and archives, the crumbling documents, film and microfilm, and cancelled oral history programs.

At one time in our province we actively collected our stories. When I was a university student, the British Columbia Archives interviewed people about the past, stored and published their stories. That program is long gone, as is the research function of the adjacent Royal BC Museum. Today, the preservation of the knowledge of our elders and pioneers is left entirely to chance.

Even the notion that we still have a provincial archives is somewhat misleading. In 2003 the provincial archives and the Royal BC Museum was turned over to a Crown Corporation. The archives, which should be the centre of historical memory has been so under-funded for so many years it has cut service so researchers can only request access to manuscripts 6 hours a day, four days a week; essentially a half time service. The museum and archives are expected to make heritage pay its own way. They now charge us to reproduce records we, as British Columbians, already own.

Community archives have been hit too. In 2001, the provincial government eliminated funding programs for community archives and archival organizations and as a result historic records are in peril.

The other vital heritage documents of the province were housed in the provincial Land Title Office and Crown Survey Branch but these too have recently been handed over to a non-government agency, another corporate body not directly accountable to the people of British Columbia.

Beyond the manuscripts and the oral history of our elders, history also lives in our landscapes, historic sites and sacred places. There is no provincial plan to protect our cultural landscapes, neither the sacred places of First Nations nor the historical landscapes of pioneers.

Even the record of government preservation of heritage buildings is largely a thing of the past. The historic heart of Victoria, for example, was saved from demolition by funds from the BC Heritage Trust, a public trust eliminated when the current government first came to office. And when it comes to the historic sites the government actually owns, we find it has privatized them in 15-year leases.

If history is to be passed on it must be taken up by our youth and then transmitted to following generations. Yet we discourage our children from becoming historians and storytellers for their time. History is being replaced in the provincial high school curriculum with citizenship studies. Scholarships that used to help university students specialize in BC history have, like the BC Heritage Trust, been eliminated.

Our government has failed British Columbians by starving or privatizing our past, and thereby alienating our common heritage. Even from an economic point of view, this is short-term thinking of the worst kind. It ignores the importance of heritage to our tourism industry and the benefits that flow to private and public coffers from visitors who come to see our indigenous and pioneer history. When we, for example, invite the world to the 2010 Olympics, visitors are going to want to know about our past. Are we going to be able to tell and show it to them?

The past is important to our economy but even more essential to our culture and our future. History binds us in our tribes, in our families, our towns, and as a province and we cannot go forward without it. As the newly re-elected provincial government prepares for the golden decade, let's make Heritage a priority. Let us offer all British Columbians, First Nations and settlers, a comprehensive heritage plan. Let us leave our future a past.

John Lutz teaches British Columbia history at the University of Victoria.