Emily Murphy was a racist but her statue is safe, for now

Emily Murphy and John A. Macdonald were racists but Murphy’s statues won’t come down anytime soon. Here’s why.

image: Famous 5 Foundation

Macdonald may have been one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers but his reputation as a nation-builder has been tarnished because of his role in the creation of residential schools. His opinions now are offensive:

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”

The view that Indigenous people were savages was common. Seen from today’s perspective, those views are abhorrent. Macdonald’s popularity is demonstrated by the 18 years he served as prime minister.

If you lived at that time, you probably would have thought the same.

Oh no, you protest! I am an enlightened person. Our treatment of Indigenous people has been cruel. I would never agree to the inhumanity perpetrated on them.

Yes, you (and I) would. We are creatures molded by the times we live in, formed by the zeitgeist of our times. Like fish, we don’t notice the water we swim in –it’s all pervasive.

But while Emily Murphy was also a racists, her statue in Emily Murphy Park, Edmonton, will remain undisturbed -for now.

Murphy was a champion of women’s rights. She is responsible for winning the rights for women to be declared legal “persons.” After women gained personhood, they could become members of the senate. She became a respected police magistrate and juvenile court judge in Edmonton.

Murphy made no secret of her distain for Canadians of Chinese decent. In her 1922 book, The Black Candle, and in articles she wrote for Macleans magazine, she claimed that good white women were being led into lives of depravity by Chinese immigrants who drugged them with opium. In her book, Murphy says:

“It behoves the people of Canada to consider the desirability of these visitors – for they are visitors – and to say whether or not we shall be ’at home’ with them in the future.”

Why hasn’t Murphy been condemned for her views? Although we have been sensitized by the atrocities against Indigenous people, that’s not so for Asian Canadians.

We have not yet woke to our deplorable treatment of Asian Canadians. While the internment of Japanese Canadians is an historical fact, it is not part of the milieu of our everyday experience.

In 1942, 22,000 Japanese Canadians, the majority of them Canadian citizens by birth, were imprisoned in camps in the B.C. interior. We know that but it’s not much more than a dry fact.

The attacks on Canadians of Asian decent have increased.  Vancouver experienced an increase of 717 per cent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021. With 98 reported cases – more than all US cities combined – Vancouver was dubbed the “anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America”.

Eventually, we will become incensed at our blatant abuse of Canadians of Asian descent.

When the spotlight shines on Emily Murphy, watch as her statue is toppled and the plaque now reading “An author and a mother, she was a leader of social reform and political issues,” is smeared with paint.

Tearing down and vandalizing statues is barbaric

Now that we are enlightened, we clearly see the errors of the past. Such is the case with every generation. Regrettably, that enlightenment doesn’t seem to distinguish systemic racism from the value of art from the past.

image by comradejaggi (Instagram) August 29

Statues are works of art. As an artist, and as someone who has studied sculpture at the University of Alberta, I am keenly aware of the hundreds of hours that go into producing a sculpture. Sculptures are particularly difficult to produce because they are made of materials durable enough for future generations to appreciate.

Also, I sit on a committee mandated by the city of Kamloops. We review applications for funding and creating public art. The job involves evaluating the application and allocating meagre funds for artists to make public works.

I’m a strong believer in public art. Art is more than decorative; it inspires and makes a statement about a place. Public art gives testimony to the vitality of a city.

Have you seen Kamloops’ largest piece of public art? It’s truly awesome. Artist Bill Frymire assembled a shimmering mosaic of 80,000 aluminum tiles on a parkade, transforming it from a grey concrete tomb into a mirage that ripples in the sun at the slightest breeze.

I imagine being on a Regina city arts committee in 1966. We’ve received an application for a statue of John A. Macdonald to be built at a park entrance. The plaque is to be placed underneath the sculpture is to read “John A. Macdonald, Father of Confederation.”

I suspect that support for the Macdonald statue would have been unanimous. Because we were not yet woke it’s unlikely we would consider how inappropriate it to be, considering Macdonald’s role in the assimilation of Indigenous people and his racist views of Asian immigrants.

The Macdonald sculpture was built in Regina, in 1967, and cast in bronze using a centuries-old lost wax technique. It has vandalized at least three times since 2012 and is now the only one of Macdonald still standing in a major Western city in Canada.

On July 19, 2020, a group of about 30 people gathered at Ryerson University in Toronto, organized by Black Lives Matter-Toronto, and defaced another Macdonald sculpture with paint. One protester said:

“Defacing the monuments and having the art display done is actually I think a really good way of showing Canada’s long-standing history of violence of both Black and Indigenous communities on these lands.”

I find the equation of violence against people equal to violence against art puzzling. And as an artist, I find the notion of defacing a sculpture in the name of art galling.

In one hundred years, enlightened citizens will reflect on our backward ways. What we now regard as enlightened will then be seen as retrograde.

Perhaps one of our stupid ways, as seen through the lens of future woke generations, will be the way we treat animals raised for slaughter. Will they then vandalize the handsome bronze sculpture of a bull by Joe Fafard that sits at the entrance of Riverside Park in Kamloops?

Our perceived virtues are ephemeral, ever drifting into sin as seen by future generations. Art meant to last millennia should not be a victim latest expression of self-righteous barbarism.