Why you should care
Maisie Hurley elevated oppressed voices way back in 1946.
Time was running out for Alfred Adams. It was 1944, and Adams — a Haida Nation elder and leader of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia — would soon succumb to cancer. In his final days, he appealed to Maisie Hurley, a White descendant of British aristocracy whom Adams had come to know and trust through her legal advocacy work for First Nations people in Canada. He asked her not to let their struggles go untold. She fulfilled his dying wish.
With the equivalent of just $150, Hurley, then in her late 50s, started a widely circulated newspaper called The Native Voice in 1946. It became the first well-known Canadian paper dedicated to the First Nations community that reported on the discrimination they faced. Hurley spent the remainder of her life working to elevate First Nations voices and shine a light on the systemic injustices affecting them. “There was no model for her,” says Eric Jamieson, author of The Native Voice: The Story of How Maisie Hurley and Canada’s First Aboriginal Newspaper Changed a Nation. In British Columbia, “there was nobody of her ilk doing this sort of work,” he says.
Hurley was born in 1887 to an elite Welsh family with ties to British royalty. Her birth certificate read Amy Campbell-Johnston, but she was always called Maisie and spent her early years in Wales and India before the family settled in Vancouver, British Columbia. There she grew up amid a rugged landscape populated by outlaws and loggers, miners and cowboys — as well as First Nations people. Hurley’s father, a mining engineer, worked closely with First Nations people on his geological expeditions, and her parents instilled the concept of noblesse oblige — that nobles should be generous to those less fortunate — in their children.
Hurley had no patience for the social norms of her time. After attending a private school in England, she married a real estate agent in Vancouver but left him and the city to explore the Pacific Northwest with a laborer named Martin Murphy. The two shared a love of boxing and, apparently, of each other — they had five children together, and Hurley’s own mother didn’t get that memo until years later, says Jamieson.
Hurley later worked for the Industrial Workers of the World and eventually returned to Vancouver, where she met her future husband, Tom Hurley, whom she wed after her first husband died. Considered a forefather of legal aid, Tom Hurley worked pro bono for First Nations clients, Jamieson says. Maisie swiftly joined his cause.
The path she carved was far from traditional for women in the 1940s and ’50s, says Kevin Griffin, a Vancouver Sun reporter who has written about Hurley. She lobbied extensively against legal injustices that First Nations people faced and wrote scathing editorials calling for the abolition of the Indian Act, which disallowed certain religious ceremonies and mandated specific types of education.
Rights to land, voting and purchasing alcohol, according to Griffin, were key legal issues for these communities, who had been living in present-day Canada for several thousand years before European settlers arrived. But unlike in other provinces, settlers had never signed treaties for more than 90 percent of traditional lands belonging to the First Nations people of British Columbia.
Hurley, who was regularly quoted for her political views at a time when women rarely were highlighted, had her work cut out for her. When she launched the newspaper, First Nations people didn’t have the provincial or federal right to vote without losing treaty rights and First Nations status, a designation similar to citizenship. Also, the Indian Act of 1876 prohibited the sale of alcohol to First Nations people (the liquor ban was overturned nationally in 1985). Outright discriminatory practices brought many First Nations people into court unnecessarily, says Jamieson. What’s more, criminal codes actively prohibited First Nations people from hiring lawyers to fight for their land rights.
Hurley’s newspaper reached throughout British Columbia, Canada and North America in an unprecedented way. But The Native Voice also functioned as an ongoing feedback loop: The outlet broadcasted the struggles of other First Nations people to disparate outposts while also gathering news from those corners. Above all, the paper ushered in hope that others cared about delivering justice to First Nations communities.
Today, the idea of having a White European woman of noble birth acting as a mouthpiece for this community seems far from ideal. The Native Voice’s stories served and were often written by First Nations people, and Hurley’s involvement was valuable to the community then. But given the political influence of the First Nations community now, she would be perhaps less welcome today, Jamieson says.
At the same time, he believes this articulate, outspoken woman would have been “outraged” by the slow pace of incremental policy changes in the half-century since her death in 1964 at age 76. The Indian Act, though amended, still exists in Canada. Many reserves lack adequate water, sanitation and housing. While Canada’s federal government might be enacting reform in “snail-like increments,” Jamieson says, “it’s not fast enough.”