Provincial Museum of Alberta Promotes Murder of Disabled Children Says ACL Web Site

(10 November 2000) — Due to its ableist biases, the Provincial Museum of Alberta has provoked in the disability community a torrent of discussion on the concept of mercy and its portrayal. Currently, the Museum features the Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries exhibition, which examines the impact of the teachings of Christ. The curators have included the Sermon on the Mount, the New Testament's equivalent of the Ten Commandments. In a video, Robert Latimer is associated with Christ's words on mercy — "Happy are the kind and merciful for they shall be shown mercy."(Matthew 5:7) Disability activists are concerned because connecting Robert Latimer to the Beatitudes, which prescribe behavior for Christians, could be interpreted by some as a tacit endorsement of euthanasia.

This portrayal raises a second question-what makes a mainstream institution view Robert Latimer as an appropriate icon for mercy?

Robert Latimer is a Saskatchewan farmer who murdered his 12-year-old daughter Tracy who had cerebral palsy. Latimer attempted to hide the fact that he had committed murder by destroying evidence and lying about the circumstances of Tracy's death. After forensic evidence revealed Latimer's lie, he confessed to having gassed Tracy to death with carbon monoxide in the front seat of his pick up. This was the method he chose after having considered and rejected several other methods. Latimer has never expressed any remorse about having killed Tracy. The facts of the case reveal Latimer to be a remorseless murderer. These are not the characteristics usually associated with the merciful.

Organizations of people with disabilities are drawing to the public's attention the contradictory message about mercy contained in the Anno Domini exhibit.

"It seems that the Alberta artist, museum curatorial staff, and exhibit funder don't follow news stories too closely. It's common Canadian knowledge that Robert Latimer was convicted in 1997 of the second-degree murder of his severely disabled daughter Tracy, and, in fact, awaits imminent sentencing from the Supreme Court of Canada," states Carol Polson, Provincial Director of the Manitoba Leauge of Persons with Disabilities. "Shame on the Provincial Museum for hiding an atrocity using the guise of art, and pronouncing it untouchable and sacred."

Disability is the factor in this case, which confuses the popular understanding of mercy. Tracy Latimer had a severe form of Cerebral Palsy, which affected her physical and mental abilities. Due to a lack of experience of life with a disability, many, outside of the disability movement, respond to the idea of disability in a very emotional way and conclude that they would prefer to be dead than disabled. In the popular consciousness, disability is synonymous with suffering. Members of the public then wrongly generalize that everyone, including those living with a disability, would feel the same way. These faulty assumptions, when applied to the circumstances of Tracy Latimer's murder, cause some in the public to view Latimer as someone who stopped suffering rather than as a cold-blooded murderer. It would seem that ableist biases and assumptions drove the decision making on the "mercy" section of the Anno Domini exhibit.

People who live with disabilities affirm that our lives are rich in experience and meaning. This point of view is eloquently stated by Catherine Frazee, a member of CCD's Human Rights Committee. "I've never run. Nor have I ever walked. Nor for that matter have I ever stood. ... In the not-so-flattering language of medical textbooks, I am a flaccid paralytic, suffering from a genetic mutation that causes profound and progressive wasting of the skeletal muscles. My body has the consistency of overcooked pasta....A lot of life has been lived—and lived well—in what the American essayist Nancy Mairs describes in her book Waist-High in the World, as this "folded"[i.e. disabled] state. Such an abundance of felicitous living warrants careful thought about what it means not to walk. The simple arithmetic of it is that my disability has brought me smartly to all the things I value—my career, my friendships, my creative life, my tenacity, my intimate partner, my world view. And there is no logical reason to believe that this will not continue to be the case for as long as I remain alive. This is not a matter of simple acceptance, of stoicism, of bravely making the best of my sorry lot. It is a matter of growing in to and embracing my experience of disability." (Saturday Night, 2 September 2000)

On the topic of mercy Jim Derksen, Chairperson of CCD's Human Rights Committee writes the following, "People with disabilities are murdered in the name of kindness more often than in hatred...Specific instances of so-called "mercy killing" of people like Tracy Latimer arise from the social context that has been deeply gouged with the general misperception that life with a disability is an unending, unredeeming tragedy. That commonly mistaken notion that our quality of life is so poor that it is not worth living results in a social environment in which people with disabilities are vulnerable—in which they risk ultimate harm from apparently well-intentioned, caring people. The situation may one day be corrected by an understanding that the quality of life of people with disabilities is not significantly different from that of those without. Our lives are as precious to us as anyone's life can be. We experience happiness, grief, pleasure, pain, loneliness, and love just as all people do. The Latimer murder trial [and subsequent appeals show] we must look to the law for equal protection from those who would harm us in the mistaken belief that our lives are not as worthy as living as those of others."

"CCD has intervened at both of Latimer's appeals to the Saskatchewan Appeal Court as well as in his appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada," states Laurie Beachell, National Coordinator of CCD. "Our message is simple. Murder is murder, to provide a lesser sentence or excuse the murder of persons with disabilities is to put the lives of all persons with disabilities at risk."

Readers are encouraged to send their views to the following: Dr. Philip Stepney, Director, Provincial Museum of Alberta, 12845-102 Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta, T5N 0M6 Tel: 780-453-9100 email: and Stan Woloshyn, Minister of Community Development, 204 Legislative Building, 10800 97th Avenue, Edmonton Alberta, T2K 2B6 780-427-4928, (Phone); 780-427-0188 (Fax).