Northwestern Ontario Artist Turns to Family for Inspiration

By Susan Goldberg

Mary McPherson designed this coin for the Royal Canadian Mint in 2019, inspired by her uncle, Rifleman Rudolph McPherson

In 2019, award-winning artist Mary McPherson was approached by the Royal Canadian Mint to design a coin commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Scheldt. She turned to her own family tree for inspiration.

McPherson’s uncle, Rifleman Rudolph McPherson, served as an artillery spotter with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles during World War II. The Battle of the Scheldt was fought in Belgium and the Netherlands in the fall of 1944 and ultimately secured a crucial supply line for the Allied liberation of Europe. More than 75,000 Canadians served in the battle, and more than 6,300 were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Rudolph was killed in action the week before the battle began, explains his niece, but “if he had lived, he likely would have contributed to it.” 

McPherson, 23, had grown up hearing stories about her uncle’s service. “He was tasked with using the Ojibway language in radio communications during the war. But at the same time, his siblings at home were being put into residential schools, where they weren’t allowed to speak Ojibway. So, there’s an interesting parallel there.”

Along the same lines, McPherson notes, “My uncle Rudolph fought for Canada, but as a Status Indian, he didn’t have the right to vote. And if he had survived and come home—as his brothers did later—he wouldn’t have been able to sit in a barroom with his fellow veterans. My dad clearly remembers barrooms with signs outside that said ‘No Indians Allowed.’”

McPherson’s art also focuses on how Canadian law has impacted her family, community, and identity as a Status Indigenous person

McPherson, who is of mixed Ojibway and Irish descent and a member of the Couchiching First Nation, used a photograph of her uncle as the model for the Ojibway soldier, armed with a Bren gun, on her coin. “I feel like my Uncle Rudolph knew that there was a lot of oppression going on in his own family and community by the Canadian state. But despite that, he fought for humanity, so that Canadians could live a relatively free life. That’s something I really carry with me. And I wanted to communicate his story in my coin design, because it’s not something I see being talked about a whole lot in the Canadian sphere.”

This is the second coin that McPherson has designed for the Mint. In 2018, she was selected to create a coin face honouring the 250th anniversary of the birth of Tecumseh, the Shawnee war hero who sided with the British and led hundreds of Indigenous warriors against the Americans in the war of 1812.

McPherson grew up in Thunder Bay and received an honours degree in fine arts from Lakehead University. She’s currently studying law at the University of Ottawa, with a focus on Indigenous law. Ultimately, she hopes to find a path that combines her considerable artistic talent with her legal training. 

“By the end of my undergrad,” she says, “I was creating a lot of artwork that explored how Canadian law has had an impact on my family, my community, even my own identity as a Status Indian. I mean, so much of our lives revolve around this identity, and what is it? It’s a legal fiction created by Canadian law. So, I felt I needed to go to law school in order to better understand the legal system and how it operates so that I can better understand what I was expressing in my art.”