By Eric Jamieson
No one could claim that Maisie Hurley, the pioneering B.C. journalist and advocate for Canada’s First Nations, was ever boring. Her exciting and significant life story is told in Eric Jamieson’s new biography The Native Voice.
Descended from Scottish royalty and born in 1887 to upper middle class privilege in Wales, Hurley (Amy Campbell Campbell-Johnston on her birth certificate, but Maisie most of her life ) grew up in B.C. in the small interior settlements where her mining engineer father worked. She lived her first years among First Nations playmates, colourful cowboys, outlaws and loggers, including the famous train robber Bill Miner.
After a thwarted attempt to elope with an Anglican minister, Maisie was shipped off to private school in Britain, but if her parents hoped the stay would tame her, they were to be disappointed. On her return to B.C., Maisie married a “suitable” husband, but soon left him to roam the Pacific Northwest with Martin Murphy, a disdained “Liverpool Mick,” labourer, boxer, heavy drinker and autodidact. During her years with Murphy, Maisie had five children, and worked as a union organizer for the radical Industrial Workers of the World.
A cigar smoking organizer of both strikes and boxing matches, a union radical, an early anti-racist, a woman willing to take great risks and defy convention to follow her heart, Maisie met her future husband Tom Hurley soon after her return to Vancouver in 1924. Hurley was a progressive lawyer and pioneer in legal aid, and they met through a shared love for boxing. Maisie and Tom were soon lovers and co-workers in his legal practice. Both Catholics, they were eventually able to marry when Maize’s first husband died in 1951.
Tom Hurley built much of his practice around free work for First Nations clients, and in 1944, essentially on his deathbed, Alfred Adams, Haida elder and founder of the Native Brotherhood, asked Maisie to found a newspaper to campaign for native rights. She put up her own money and soon had the paper up and running.
For decades The Native Voice was the official organ of the Native Brotherhood, and reported on the many efforts made by First Nations groups and individuals to undo the land grabs, discrimination and poverty that were imposed on the continent’s first residents.
While the Native Voice was not the first paper in North America to champion the cause of native rights — the first being the Cherokee Phoenix in 1828 — it was for decades a widely read and circulated paper that had significant influence, linking together native activists from different communities and educating “white” readers about the often hidden history of land theft and abuse endured by the continent’s first inhabitants. Maisie used the paper to call for reforms, to denounce the delaying tactics of government and to call for native unity and support from non-native Canadians for the demands being made by First Nations.
When Maisie Hurley died in 1964, the self-described “angry old woman” was hailed by friends and allies as a pioneer, an important voice for justice and a friend to native people. She had already been honoured by several B.C. First Nations who bestowed traditional names upon her and by the Native Brotherhood, which made her that body’s first woman associate life member in 1944.
It is shameful that a social justice and journalism giant like Maisie Hurley has gone relatively unremembered. (Although, in one exception to the public silence, reporter Kevin Griffin devoted an excellent set of articles to Hurley’s life and a public display of her collection of First Nations art in this paper in 2011.) Jamieson’s biography is deeply researched and well written, and if it finds the audience it deserves, it will do much to educate B.C. readers about an important part of our history and a genuine B.C. heroine. This is a valuable and useful book.
My one regret is that the author did not fully explore the inevitable tensions and contradictions that are generated when a member of the dominant group makes common cause with the members of an oppressed group. Jamieson refers to Maisie’s “noblesse oblige,” which is by definition a top down and problematic attitude. More analysis of this topic would have been welcome.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. For much of the five decades he has lived here, he has been actively involved in supporting First Nations justice demands. He welcomes story tips and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.