SFU mural is an unwarranted reminder of Canada’s colonial past

What is branded as a ‘teachable’ moment hurts the exact people SFU hopes to help

Photo courtesy of SFU

Written by Treena Chambers

What do you do when you get a pair of pants as a present and they don’t fit? Most people ask for a receipt and return them. They don’t empanel a number of experts and talk about what they can learn about the pants’ perspective. They don’t talk about how these pants remind them of the importance of going to the gym regularly or eating better. They don’t talk about how important a gift these pants were even though they didn’t fit. Instead, they offer a teachable moment for considering how modern society has shaped our eating and exercising habits. They don’t hold onto this un-Comfortable, awkward, and ill-fitting gift as a reminder/memorial.

Now imagine that instead of pants, we are talking about a mural, specifically the British Columbia Pageant mural painted by Charles Comfort in 1951. This piece of corporate art was donated to SFU by the Toronto Dominion Bank in 2004. I am not going to question why, given all that we knew about the history and impact of colonialism in 2004, a university named after a colonial exploiter — sorry, I mean explorer — would accept this uncalled-for gift. However, I will point out that there has never been a time when Indigenous students and staff were not questioning the installation of this mural. Never a time when we were Comfortable with it.

I am not going to question why a vice-president university relations — Warren Gill, in 2005 — would say: “Being painted over 50 years ago, it can be seen to be male-centric and to glorify colonialism, thoughtless resource exploitation and environmental degradation in a way that we all would question today. On the other side, the mural is an important piece of Canadian art and contains some progressive elements for its time.” If I had to question that statement, I would have to wonder how a mediocre piece of corporate art, created for a bank by someone who was once an interesting and provocative artist but is no longer so, is still considered an important piece of Canadian art.

Is there any inherent value to a piece that glorifies colonialism, resource exploitation, and environmental degradation in the present? I would have to ask why a male-centric piece of work that glorifies colonialism, resource exploitation, and environmental degradation was accepted in the first place. I could raise these questions but, like the other Indigenous people who have already been consulted, I suspect that no good answer would be forthcoming.

Let me be clear: Indigenous students, staff, and their allies are not asking SFU to burn the mural. They’re not asking SFU to denounce the artist. They’re saying that at this time and place, they do not want to be confronted with a second-rate memorial to colonialism. They do not have the energy to continue having this conversation about the challenges of colonialism and racism over and over again. We’re already having that conversation in class, and it is often exhausting and painful for us all to constantly do the work to teach others. We don’t need another “opportunity” to have this conversation. We have to get to class.

The “teachable moment” upheld by this university is hurting the same people SFU claims to want to teach. These are not people in the abstract. These are people who have to walk past this affront every time they walk through the Academic Quadrangle. The price of this “teachable moment” comes at the expense of some of the most marginalized students on the SFU campus. Our pain and discomfort is a “learnable moment” that those in power never seem to learn.

Instead of wasting our time and energy by re-setting the cedar table or empaneling experts to talk about Why Art Matters’, SFU can put the Comfort mural in that closet with the awkward fitting pants and the itchy sweater that you only wear when your mom comes to visit. Heck, I bet if you read the SFU Abroriginal Reconciliation Council’s (ARC) report, there might even be a call to action that would echo this idea. I would suggest starting on pages 31 and 75.