Murals in the rotunda of the British Columbia Legislature depicting native women as bare breasted and native men as subservient will be taken down more than 70 years after they were painted.
After a debate that touched on censorship, historical revisionism and government policies on aboriginal affairs, Liberals and New Democrats joined together yesterday to vote overwhelmingly in favour of correcting what they described as a grievous wrong. Only three of 71 legislators voted against a motion to endorse a proposal to bring down the murals.
"This is a place for all of the people of British Columbia," Premier Gordon Campbell said shortly before the vote in the legislature. The decision to take down the murals sends a clear and unequivocal message that the contributions of aboriginals are valued, he added. "We want this place to be inclusive," he said.
New Democratic Party Leader Carole James said the depictions in the murals were not simply an aboriginal issue. She urged support for the proposal, which also called for the murals to be moved to a museum, where they could be explained.
The murals by artist George Southwell were meant to depict scenes from B.C. history from 1792 to 1843. They were commissioned in 1932 and completed three years later.
A mural called Labour shows several bare-breasted native women hauling logs to build Fort Victoria and carrying baskets of fish before blue-eyed men in uniform; another mural called Justice shows a shackled native chief before Colonial Chief Justice Matthew Begbie. Two adjacent murals called Courage and Enterprise have not been controversial.
Aboriginal leaders have being pressing to have the murals removed for decades, calling them offensive, demeaning and historically inaccurate. They have said that aboriginal women did not go topless in front of the European settlers. They also objected to the subservient manner of the chief before the judge.
Mr. Southwell died in 1961 but his family has been outspoken in urging the legislature to retain the artwork.
Mr. Southwell's granddaughter was in tears in the legislature gallery during the debate.
Jane Munro said her grandfather's work may have reflected colonial attitudes, but it was not racist.
"My grandfather's work is not welcome here," she said.
"He's seen as a racist. It's hurtful to have the art become a token for racism."
The recommendation to take down the murals and consider preserving them at another location came from a report of a committee of eminent individuals commissioned during the tenure of the former NDP government.
The Liberal government was prompted to look at the report after a ceremony to celebrate an agreement with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations in November, Aboriginal Relations Minister Michael de Jong told the legislature during debate of the motion to wipe out the murals.
The ceremony took place just off the rotunda, Mr. de Jong said.
"As we went through the rotunda and people looked, they didn't say anything but it was clear they were uncomfortable.
"It was clear what they saw troubled them," he said.
"Many looked away and many were anxious to leave that particular part of the building ... because of what they saw."
Mr. Campbell later said native leaders told him at the ceremony that they were upset with the murals.
"As we celebrated a historic agreement between two first nations and the government and the people of British Columbia, they said: 'Yes, we will celebrate this, but this place made us feel uncomfortable,' " Mr. Campbell said.
New Democrat Michael Farnworth said the murals were from a time when views of aboriginal people were different.
"Every British Columbian should be able to come and see themselves not only represented in this chamber but also represented in the building itself in an accurate way," he said.