By: Alison Wick, Arts Editor

In 2004, SFU acquired a 19-metre-long, $600,000 colonial artwork painted by Charles Comfort, receiving it from the Toronto Dominion (TD Canada Trust) bank’s Vancouver headquarters. The painting, called the British Columbia Pageant, immediately sparked protest among the SFU community and the public; the painting is not only a misrepresentation of British Columbian history, but it offensively portrays Indigenous Peoples as decorative and passive. This week, the massive painting is finally being taken down and put in storage.

The British Columbia Pageant, above, has been hanging in above the Images theatre in the North AQ hallway for 15 years. Image courtesy of SFU Galleries via SFU.

This is the first piece of art being removed in response to SFU’s Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee’s (ARC) 2017 report and calls to action. This is not the first time that the mural has been the site of controversy. In fact, the mural has been contested since its acquisition. The removal project is being overseen by the ARC Arts Cluster, a committee that was formed to address the report’s art-related calls to action. As Cluster member Dr. Deanna Reder (Cree/Métis) says, “while this may seem as the first move in response to the ARC, it is actually a long time coming.”

1951 — Charles Comfort is commissioned by TD to paint a mural in their bank

Comfort painting the 19 metre mural on the wall of TD bank in 1951. Image courtesy of SFU Galleries.

The British Columbia Pageant was painted directly onto the wall of the TD Canada Trust branch at Granville and Pender. Over the course of the 58 days it took Comfort and three assistants to paint it, bankgoers were able to watch him picture history. More specifically, they were able to watch him re-picture and invent a history that never actually happened. 

Captain Vancouver never sat down in peaceful diplomacy with the Peoples he encountered on the coast, nor were Indigenous Peoples a backdrop to colonial expansion and invasion on the coast. The painting is also entirely void of Asian-Canadian who were and are an instrumental part of the province’s history.

1972 — UBC accepts and then rejects a Comfort painting

Comfort in front of the rejected painting. Image taken from The Native Voice courtesy of SFU Galleries.

In the 70s, another “history” mural painted by Comfort in 1939 was intended to be donated and hung up at the UBC library. This larger-than-life painting depicted Captain Vancouver meeting Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest Coast as they sat on the ground at his feet. The student body, the public, and even library staff were all adamantly and vocally opposed to this painting which actually led to UBC rejecting the donation. Quoted in an article by The Native Voice at the time, Alvin Mackay, the director of UBC’s Indian Resource Centre, said “It is not the kind of things that should be displayed at a University in 1972.”

2004 — TD Bank closes and donates the British Columbia Pageant to SFU

Mounting the painting, after restoring it, above the images theatre. Image courtesy of SFU Galleries.

The painting had been on display at this Vancouver branch for 51 years unchanged. When the branch closed down in 2002, the bank spent two years looking for a new home for the mural; which it eventually found at SFU. At the time, SFU’s art curators were aware of the problematic and controversial nature of the painting.

“If the Comfort mural can be used as a teaching tool to provoke discussion of fundamental issues such as colonialism and First Nations experience, then it is a useful addition to the university,” said Warren Gill, then the school’s vice-president university relations, in an SFU News article.

SFU’s administration might have clung to this vision of using inaccurate and offensive colonial artwork to spark productive conversations, but that ideal never really came to fruition. In fact, it has largely alienated the students supposedly sought to include, as SFU student Treena Chambers (Métis) wrote in a 2018 opinions article for The Peak.

2004-2005 — Resetting the Cedar Table Series Anti-Colonial Art Contest

Cover of the special issue of West Coast Line on the Cedar Table Series. Image courtesy of SFU Galleries.

In response to the acquisition of the painting, the First Nations Student Society and the Simon Fraser Student Society held a panel discussion and a contest to counter what is presented and depicted in the painting. The winner, Teen BC, and runner-up, Civilization is a Crime Scene, of this contest can be found directly opposite to the mural. This panel and contest also resulted in the 55th issue of the West Coast Line journal, a special issue titled “Art & Anti-Colonialism: the 2004/05 Cedar Table Series Anti-Colonial Art Contest.”

2017 — Walk this Path With Us: Report of the SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council is published

Cover of Walk This Path With Us. Courtesy of SFU.

After meeting for a year, the SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council published 34 calls to action, which included addressing the Charles Comfort mural and removing “colonial art that is degrading to the Indigenous population” (Call to Action 4). The Aboriginal Reconciliation Council Arts Cluster was then formed shortly thereafter to address these artistic concerns. The funding to remove the mural was then approved as part of the Aboriginal Strategic Initiatives process.

2019 — Removal of the mural: what’s next?

Setting up the scaffolding on June 20. Image by Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak.

The Art Cluster has three goals: the removal of the mural, a reinstallation of work in the North AQ, and a policy for the inclusion of Indigenous art in all SFU buildings,” said Melanie O’Brian, the director of SFU Galleries, in an email interview with The Peak.

Dr. Deanna Reder additionally commented that the removal of this painting is really just a single step in what will need to be a much longer process. 

Right now, the West side of that corridor begins with the Comfort Mural and the East end has an enclosed space next to the [anthropology] museum that is open to the outdoors and has a totem pole that was carved by a non-Indigenous person. So the entire corridor needs to be re-thought,” said Dr. Reder to The Peak over email.

When asked about what students can do to help decolonize SFU’s art collection, Dr. Reder wrote that a “key to decolonization is to understand more about the history of the land you are walking upon.” 

Dr. Karrmen Crey (Sto:lo), another member of the Cluster, emphasized the importance of student voices and perspectives, citing them as a driving force in the continued criticism and eventual removal of the British Columbia Pageant. She says that students’ “voices will continue to be fundamental to SFU’s efforts to decolonize, inside and out.”

Although the removal of this painting was a long time coming, it is truly only the beginning of reconciling SFU’s public art collection.

The removal of the mural began on June 24 and will take approximately four days. The mural is set to then be put into storage at SFU.