--> Getting It Right: Using Past to Teach the Future

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Using Past to Teach the Future

Should we whitewash our history as a nation, or should we display our past, warts and all, even if it is offensive and embarrassing, both to ourselves and others?

That was the question facing the BC Legislature this week as it grappled with the question of what to do with the historic murals, painted by artist George Southwell, depicting the role BC aboriginals played in the construction of the early days of our province.

The murals, which cover the walls of the lower rotunda in the BC Legislative building in Victoria, show aboriginals, in various states of undress, lugging heavy loads of stones and other construction materials.

Powerful art? Yes. Flattering? No.

BC First Nations’ leaders condemned the murals as reinforcing negative stereotypes about the relationships between aboriginal communities and early settlers to British Columbia. They are concerned that these murals, from an earlier, less sensitive time, will lead children and tourists who visit the buildings today to believe that this is how our aboriginal population still lives.

Best, they say, to paint over these pieces of art to lessen the hurt that remains from those times.

And, of course, the MLAs in Victoria, always looking to be as politically correct as possible, quickly bowed to the pressure of the powerful interest group and voted to do exactly that.

This is very disturbing.

Totalitarian regimes from time immemorial have destroyed works of art that didn’t jibe with the prevailing “wisdom” of the day. Some went so far as to jail or kill artists and thinkers whose works were deemed inappropriate or subversive.

If we started to ban all the art that hurts feelings of various groups, there might not be much left hanging on the walls of art galleries in Canada.

We’d have to start by removing the fantastic Emily Carr permanent exhibit of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In fact, by the time we burned, or painted over, or melted down various art work depicting unflattering depictions of women, old men, war heroes, farmers, and Ukrainians, we might be only left with non-threatening landscapes of flowers found naturally occurring in nature.

I believe that the MLAs, by bowing to this special interest group, have done a grave disservice to an important historical artefact. The reality is that settlers to B.C. did treat First Nations in a deplorable manner. Why would we pretend that this never happened? Removing the murals doesn’t take away those sad facts – it just buries them so that future generations might not even remember our history.

And, frankly, what better way to discuss the injustices of the past than by standing before these powerful murals?

What better teaching aide than these larger than life images haunting visitors when they leave our capital?

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