'Uncomfortable' past: Famous Five sculpture in Olympic Plaza to be moved for redevelopment

The Women are Persons! monument at Calgary's Olympic Plaza was commissioned by the Famous 5 Foundation and unveiled in 1999.  (Frances Wright - image credit)
The Women are Persons! monument at Calgary's Olympic Plaza was commissioned by the Famous 5 Foundation and unveiled in 1999. (Frances Wright - image credit)

The Olympic Plaza and Arts Commons area is set to be redeveloped, and there won't be room for the Famous Five sculptures that have been there since 1999.

The Women are Persons! monument will be moved from its Olympic Plaza location, which is being used for the Arts Commons expansion project, breaking ground later this year, and the future Olympic Plaza Transformation project. The plaza was built for the 1988 Olympics.

The city said in a statement the size and scale of the sculptures of the five women, who fought for women's rights in the early 20th century, create a significant constraint to the future development plans. The monument's new location is unknown, but the city said it's working with the Famous 5 Foundation to find a new home.

The bronze monument was created by Edmonton artist Barbara Paterson and honours the five Alberta women — Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby and Emily Murphy —  behind the 1929 Persons Case.

Clockwise from top left: The Famous Five are Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, group shot, Irene Parlby and Emily Murphy.
Clockwise from top left: The Famous Five are Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, group shot, Irene Parlby and Emily Murphy.

Clockwise from top left: The Famous Five are Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, group shot, Irene Parlby and Emily Murphy. (Glenbow Archives)

The case ruled women were considered "persons" under the law and could be eligible for Senate appointment.

Frances Wright, the CEO and founder of the Famous 5 Foundation, told Calgary Eyeopener host Loren Mcginnis the monument should remain a part of the area's future design.

"It is news to us," said Wright.

"We have not been told formally that the monument will not be in the new Olympic Plaza. And I guess we want to know why, what are the reasons why? Secondly, who made the decision? Also, the monument has been there for 25 years and it was designed in such a way by an Indigenous sculptor, Barbara Patterson, for Calgarians and visitors to discuss with the Famous Five."

She said the sculptures include a chair as a symbol of open discussion — which challenges people who visit to think about how they can better the world for others like the women did.

Frances Wright is the CEO and founder of the Famous 5 Foundation, and says while the women did had a complex legacy, they "commented on what their world was then."
Frances Wright is the CEO and founder of the Famous 5 Foundation, and says while the women did had a complex legacy, they "commented on what their world was then."

Frances Wright is the CEO and founder of the Famous 5 Foundation. She says while the women did have a complex legacy, they 'commented on what their world was then.' (Government of Alberta)

'Uncomfortable truths'

The city said as part of the consideration for the relocation, the views of the women were taken into account.

"While the sculpture depicts an important part of our history related to women's rights, the figures also represent uncomfortable truths that cannot be ignored," said the statement to CBC.

"Some of the members of the Famous Five held views and supported policies that seriously harmed and oppressed others in society."

The statement continued, "this included support for eugenics and the Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928, and racial discrimination against Asian immigrants and other people of colour, as well as people with disabilities."

The city said the new location will address the full history of the women.

Wright acknowledged the dark side of their actions but defended the women's legacies saying, "we've tried in a number of different ways to be inclusive right from Square 1 and to recognize that the things that the Famous Five said and believed, they may not have done it had they known what we know now."

When Emily Murphy fought for voting rights, she was primarily fighting for white women.

Edmonton's Emily Murphy statue was covered in red paint and the word 'racist' written over a plaque below the statue in July of 2021.
Edmonton's Emily Murphy statue was covered in red paint and the word 'racist' written over a plaque below the statue in July of 2021.

Edmonton's Emily Murphy statue was covered in red paint with the word 'racist' written over a plaque below the figure in July 2021. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

The Famous 5 Foundation acknowledges the women's "flawed beliefs" on its website.

It addresses this point by saying, "Judge Emily Murphy may have wished that only white Protestant English women had voting rights, but she subsequently supported the participation and election of women from all parts of our society."

Wright said the tribute "is such a good piece of art to start the discussion about, 'what are we doing and saying today that won't withstand the test of time?'"

The monument was unveiled on Oct. 18, 1999 with Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, Premier Ralph Klein & Calgary Mayor Al Duerr. Shawnee Price was the first person to sit in Emily’s chair.
The monument was unveiled on Oct. 18, 1999 with Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, Premier Ralph Klein & Calgary Mayor Al Duerr. Shawnee Price was the first person to sit in Emily’s chair.

The monument was unveiled Oct. 18, 1999, with Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, Premier Ralph Klein and Calgary Mayor Al Duerr. Shawnee Price was the first person to sit in Emily’s chair. (Frances Wright)

Should it stay? Should it go?

As the Arts Commons and Olympic Plaza area prepares to be completely transformed for the first time in decades, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation is asking Calgarians for input through a public survey.

Wright said she's heard from Calgarians who want it to stay put.

"A number of people have come forward and responded to the survey, but also contacted us to say, 'I want the famous Five back in Olympic Plaza.' So, our thanks to CMLC for doing this and I guess we will continue to see who is making the decision about what goes into Olympic Plaza," said Wright.

The city said its public art team has been tasked with relocating the sculptures, in collaboration with the Famous 5 Foundation, and a search is underway.