Representatives of Canadians with disabilities decry Edmonton ‘Anno Domini exhibit

By Mike Mastromatteo
The Interim

Disabled rights activists in Alberta and across Canada are again fighting attempts suggesting that Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer was motivated only by mercy in the 1994 murder of his handicapped daughter Tracy.

The latest effort centres on the Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries exhibit at the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton. The exhibit, which runs October 7 to January 7, 2001, is described as “a thought-provoking exploration of the impact of Jesus on people and ideas, on history and culture.”

It features a video which lists 20th-century practitioners of the Gospel Beatitudes. Within the “Blessed are the Merciful” section are video pictures of Latimer declaring that he killed his daughter “to release her from her constant agony.”

In addition to disputing Latimer’s claim that his daughter was in constant pain, disabled rights groups say the effort to link Latimer with Biblical teachings about mercy are deliberately provocative. These groups have demanded that the Alberta government, which oversees the provincial museum, eliminate references to Latimer from the exhibit. The government responded by editing the original video material and adding new explanatory notes, but as of late November, it had refused to strike Latimer’s name from the showing.

Bev Matthiessen, executive director of the Alberta Committee of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD), said the provincial government’s response is inadequate.

“The difficulty lies in the word ‘mercy,'” Matthiessen told The Interim. “Mercy means compassion towards an offender. Robert Latimer and (convicted murderer) Karla Faye Tucker are both used in the Beatitude of Mercy. However, it looks like the museum is advocating for the mercy killing of Tracy Latimer. When Robert Latimer is used, it appears the museum is saying Robert Latimer is merciful in the murder of his daughter Tracy.”

Matthiessen suggested that the media, the courts and some members of the public have confused issues of justice and mercy in their attitude toward Latimer. She cited a December, 1997 court ruling sentencing Latimer to only two years for the murder, instead of the mandatory 10 years as indicated in the Canadian Criminal Code. Although the ruling is still in the appeals process, it underscored the leniency many have afforded Latimer.

The Alberta Association for Community Living (AACL) has also asked the museum curator and the Alberta government to change the Anno Domini exhibit. Association president Robin Acton issued a petition calling on Albertans to reject the notion of Robert Latimer as a model of Gospel-inspired mercy.

“The government has a responsibility to ensure all children, including children with disabilities, are safe and secure,” Acton said in a November 10 statement. “They cannot uphold that responsibility while simultaneously promoting a convicted child murderer as a merciful man. On behalf of the thousands of children and adults with developmental disabilities, their families, and the many people from across the country who join us in our request, we are again asking the government to take this opportunity to address this issue in a collaborative manner.”

Exhibit curator David Goa told The Interim November 28 that the “Blessed are the Merciful” video clip is not intended to uphold Latimer as a model of the Beatitudes. “This is clearly understood by those who watch the video in the context of the exhibition,” Goa said.

He added that the news clip on the death of Tracy Latimer reveals the divided public opinion on what constitutes mercy. “It is my view that the words of Jesus speak to all of us through the death of Tracy Latimer,” he said. “They call all of us to affirm the dignity of all people no matter what their physical, psychological or spiritual condition.”

Goa also believes the exhibit affirms human dignity, and that officials with Alberta’s disabled rights groups have misunderstood his intentions.

Goa’s justification notwithstanding, the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) believes Latimer’s appearance in the exhibit further confuses public attitudes toward euthanasia and the equitable treatment of people with physical and mental disabilities. In a recent issue of its Latimer Watch newsletter, the CCD said the exhibit and the province’s response to the subsequent criticism reveal the need for more consultation among the disabled. “The experience with the Anno Domini exhibit demonstrates why the representative organizations of people with disabilities need to be part of the decision-making processes of bodies like a provincial museum, which play an important role in shaping public opinion.”

Meanwhile the Alberta Association for Community Living is considering a Charter challenge or human rights complain against the exhibit.