‘Racist’ Painting Based on New Brunswick Legend Taken Down After Public Outcry

The group behind the painting, which showed two Indigenous women tied up and gagged, apologized but was still defiant.

by Hilary Beaumont
Jul 29 2015, 9:00pm

Photo via Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

A mural has been removed form a New Brunswick window after locals in the City of Bathurst called it racist and offensive. But even after apologizing, the group that created the painting, which showed two Mi'kmaq women in traditional dress tied up and gagged, maintained it was a depiction of a legend and compared it to Little Red Riding Hood.

But the Legend of the Phantom Ship depicted in the painting "is ultimately about the abuse of native people as well as the rape of the women," one of the mural's detractors tweeted before it was removed.

According to the version of the legend on the City of Bathurst website, a pirate known as Captain Craig enjoyed visiting "Indian Villages" because he "knew that the inhabitants were vulnerable," thus easy to exploit.

"After exchanging a few of their precious pelts for lancy [sic] goods and other items that had no value whatsoever, they gave them alcohol, then they stole all the furs that they owned," the site states.

A maritime pilot, who is never fully flushed out as a character, then boards the pirate ship and discovers two "Indian girls" tied up and covered with fur pelts. "The pirates had kidnapped them, while their parents were drunk," the story continues. "The captain and his first mate intended to have their way with these two girls and to throw them in the sea afterwards. This is what they did, or tried to do, at each trip."

The pilot ultimately returns the girls home. After the women are safe on land, the pirate ship hits a rock and sinks, drowning all the scoundrels. Later that evening the ship reappears on the surface of the water, engulfed in hellfire, with apparitions of the dead pirates steering the ghost vessel out to sea.

Over the phone Tuesday, Adrienne Hazen, who sits on the board of the Bathurst Arts Society, emphasized that they based the paintings on this "official" version of the legend that's on the City of Bathurst website.

The whole thing started when The Hospitality Days Festival committee and the arts society decided to paint the windows of ten businesses around town. "Rather than do something haphazard that didn't have much meaning, we thought, why don't we do the story of the phantom ship?" she explained to VICE.

There was no consultation with any Mi'kmaq people before painting the murals, Hazen said. "No, we never had any reason to do that. It would be like putting Red Riding Hood up on the walls. Why would we? I can't think of why we would communicate with them about that."

The people who painted the murals are "mostly white," Hazen said, "but some of them have Indian blood in them from way back."

Scene from Parks and Recreation

"At no time did any of us ever think that this would be offensive to anyone," she explained. "That would never be our intention. But unfortunately with what's going on today in Aboriginal women's society with the lost women and the Highway of Tears, you know, they're very sensitive to things like that. So when I think somebody had seen that, it set them the wrong way, rather than thinking that as a story, which was being played out, they took it as sort of an offense against their women, and unfortunately it escalated to this point."

She repeatedly apologized.

"We went out as soon as we heard it was offensive and erased that part of the window. So it was taken down two or three days ago, that portion of it. But now the story doesn't make sense. Now you have a ship with nothing on it."

Another mural that depicted a captain also attracted controversy because it looked as if a priest were preaching to Mi'kmaq people, provoking memories of residential schools.

Hazen went on to say that some of the Bathurst Arts Society members, who are ladies in their 80s, were particularly hurt that their painting was taken down. "They're suffering too now," she said.

There was plenty of hurt to go around. When Patty Musgrave, who lives in Moncton, saw photos her friend sent her of the paintings, she was appalled. She's part of a network of women who are calling for a national inquiry into the 1,200 Indigenous women who have been killed or disappeared across Canada since 1980.

"It really upset me, and angered me, and caused me pain," she told VICE over the phone Tuesday. "I'm sure the artist didn't mean any malcontent, but the fact of the matter is, they didn't stop to think about how that impacts us as women, and not just Indigenous women, all women."

She posted the photos on her Twitter feed and an Idle No More Facebook group, where they were widely shared. Public pressure led the arts society to take down the painting.

Musgrave is part Irish and part Mi'kmaq, and didn't grow up on a reserve. She said the arts society "for sure" should have consulted Mi'kmaq people before deciding to paint the mural.

When she read the legend on the city website, she said "I wanted to throw up."

Historically, there are some facts to the legend, including the rape and murder of Indigenous women, but she said it plays up the "drunken lazy Indian" stereotype.

"When you read that story, and you say, they knew that they were vulnerable, they brought them alcohol, they were drunk, they stole their daughters. What that implies is that, OK, so just like today, you know, the Indians are going to get drunk and let anything at all happen to their kids."

She would like to see the story on the city website re-written, or removed. If you're a tourist browsing the website, you might get the wrong impression, she added.

VICE called and emailed the mayor's office about the legend, but did not hear back. We also requested comment from the Hospitality Days Festival organizers, but they didn't reply.

"I think it's part of a huge pattern," Musgrave said of the painting depicting the legend. "And it seems we're constantly having to address one thing after another."

"The reality is there's always something to fight... It's just never ending. And until our government announces that they're going to call for a national inquiry, and that this is something that we as Canadians have to do, then this is going to continue."

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.