Human-rights lawyer opposes honour for right-to-vote pioneer Nellie McClung
In a match that pits a modern-day human-rights crusader against a historical women’s-rights pioneer, a prominent Winnipeg lawyer is questioning whether Nellie McClung should be venerated on the grounds where she first fought for her right to vote nearly a century ago.
Earlier this year, the Nellie McClung Society unveiled plans to erect a larger-than-life statue of their namesake on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature.
But as the workers prepare a site for the statue on the west side of the legislature, human-rights lawyer David Matas is questioning whether the famed suffragette should be glorified.
“It’s misconceived,” he said. “It’s minimizing and putting aside some of the things she stood for.”
While Mr. Matas doesn’t deny Ms. McClung’s influential role in gaining the vote for Canadian women, he does take umbrage at her prominent support of the eugenics movement.
“It was the scientific basis of racism,” he said. “The whole eugenics movement is very problematic.”
The movement, which espoused selective breeding among humans for the betterment of the species, earned widespread interest during the early 20th century in Canada – even attracting the endorsement of a young Tommy Douglas, who wrote his master’s thesis on the subject. By the mid-1930s, it had formed the intellectual basis for the forced sterilization of mental-health patients in Alberta and British Columbia.
German leaders later used it as a foundation for the holocaust.
Like other suffragettes, Ms. McClung was an open advocate of forced sterilization, a blemish on her record that troubles modern-day rights advocates.
“Our organization will not be opposing the statue, but I do think this aspect could be addressed without tearing down all the good work Nellie McClung did,” said Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator of the Winnipeg-based Council of Canadians with Disabilities.
Mr. Beachell, along with many backers of the statue, argues that historical figures should not be judged by modern standards.
“Peoples’ understanding of disability was very different then than it is today,” he said. “The attitude was really not challenged back then. The whole disability movement really developed after World War II.”
Even so, the last of Canada’s sterilization laws were not repealed until the 1970s.
But Mr. Matas, who was recently awarded an Order of Canada for human-rights work that includes bringing Nazi-era war criminals to justice and investigating organ harvesting of Falun Gong followers in China, dismisses any talk of forgiving historical figures as products of their times.
“Human rights is a concept that’s applicable in all times and all places,” he said. “Nellie McClung was a leader on gender rights, but at the wrong end on disability rights. I don’t think we can say let’s put aside the bad things and focus on the good things. I think we have to take the person on the whole.”
He’s in the minority, but not by much: 35 per cent of 1,348 respondents to an online Winnipeg Free Press poll oppose the statue.
Candace Savage, author of Our Nell, a biography of Ms. McClung, admits that the suffrage pioneer may have held some odious views, but points out that few statue subjects are morally faultless.
“The tradition of statuary came out of the tradition of glorifying military figures,” she said. “How much blood did those people have on their hands?”
Still, Ms. Savage isn’t opposed to placing Ms. McClung on the same pedestal.
“Maybe we should refine how we think of statues,” she said. “Maybe veneration isn’t the point, but rather contemplation. They should bring out a person’s accomplishments and their failures, because, really, whose record is completely blameless?”
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