(Clockwise from upper left): Elaine Frieda Alook, Danita Faith Bigeagle, Maggie Lea Burke, Amanda Bartlett, Abigail Patrice Andrews, Roberta Marie Ferguson, Angel Carlick, Sharon Abraham.
On Monday, January 5, I began a memorial art project of sorts. Concerned about the Canadian federal government’s seeming disinterest in the disproportionate number of indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered in recent decades – and, especially, by a comment from our Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the issue “wasn’t really high on [their] radar” – I started to tweet an illustration of a missing or murdered indigenous woman daily to the Prime Minster’s account. To “adjust his radar,” I said. After the first day, I added a second component to the project, tweeting information about an indigenous-led advocacy group or individual doing work on this issue, hoping not to detract from the efforts of people who have been advocating for these women and their families for years. I was hoping to raise awareness of the issue – both within the federal government and within the Canadian public at large – and, I hoped, to honour each of these women, albeit in a somewhat unorthodox way. This project would take over three years.
The illustration I posted on Monday, January 12, of Sharon Abraham, will be my last illustration in this initiative. After extensive conversation with a group formed of families of some of the missing and murdered women, I believe I cannot continue the project in a way that respects these women’s autonomy or a way that helps rather than harms the families of these thousands of women. I apologize for hurting the families of these women and for making them relive painful memories.
As a man of no indigenous background, I realized the project tread a very thin line, and I tried to be very cautious to avoid things like self-aggrandizement, appropriation of image, and overshadowing the real work of advocacy groups. I started the project on impulse (never a good idea), realizing I was a dilettante in indigenous culture and issues, and so, I tried to be as open and non-defensive about the project as I could. I spoke to representatives of NWAC (the Native Women’s Association of Canada) and WWOS (Walking With Our Sisters) early on to see if they were supportive of the project and how I could help direct attention to their organizations. I tried to divert many of the journalists who reached out to me to these groups. The last thing I wanted to be was a Macklemore, showing up with concern to an issue late, having no personal connection to (and not much knowledge of) the issue, and receiving much undue credit for a symbolic gesture.
However, over the weekend, some of the families of the missing and murdered indigenous women got in touch with me about a number of concerns they had about the initiative. Some relatives had been in touch earlier and were supportive of the project. But other family members saw the project as extremely problematic. They outlined a number of concerns, primary among them being the issue of permission. (The women’s families had not consented to have their loved ones’ images used in this manner.) They were also concerned that the attention the project was receiving was drawing attention away from the indigenous-led efforts, and the very illustrations themselves – which were thought to be too cartoony – were seen as inappropriate. Additionally, as I realized earlier, there is great dissent within the indigenous community as to whether a public government inquiry or an independent inquiry would be more beneficial. As these concerns came from family members, I took them very seriously. I told the group I’d work on a plan that would (I hoped) address those concerns. I presented the plan on Sunday.
The five-point plan is too long (and probably irrelevant) to include here, but it involved voluntary participation from the women’s family members through an open call (that is, people would have to request their missing relative to be drawn – I wouldn’t seek out family members and harangue them) and an offer to donate the illustrations to an indigenous advocacy group, rather than tweeting from my personal account. A few other alterations, such as refusing to speak to media about the project, were also included.
This plan did not adequately address the family members’ concerns. They felt the illustrations themselves were very problematic, because cartoon drawings denoted, to them, fun and jokes. “There is nothing funny or cute or joking about my mother being killed by the police. My journey for justice for the past thirteen years has never been fun,” said one family member. If this comic-booky look was my style of illustration, perhaps I wasn’t the most suitable artist for this memorial project.
More than anything, I don’t want to antagonize the families of the victims. Whatever the initiative has accomplished – and I admit, it may have accomplished nothing at all – if the family members feel it hinders rather than helps advocacy efforts on this issue, there’s no reason for me to continue. I need to respect the autonomy of these women (or in this case, their autonomy as represented by their next of kin) and stop the project.
Again, I apologize for the harm I’ve done to the families of missing and murdered indigenous women and to any indigenous-led advocacy groups that I’ve harmed through this media distraction. Thank you for your interest in the project and your concern about the thousands of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada. Thank you for calling me out and bringing your concerns to my attention. I apologize, also, if this statement reads as defensive. I’m trying my best to not be. Instead, I’m hoping you can see this lengthy statement as a process of me learning what I did wrong, so I don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
If you were supportive of the illustration project, please consider donating to the indigenous-led organization, It Starts With Us (http://www.itstartswithus-mmiw.com/donate), as I’ve done, and will do so again. If everyone who retweeted one of my illustrations donated even a few dollars, it would make a huge difference to their advocacy initiatives. Please also consider getting involved in one of the Women’s Memorial Marches on February 14. And if you’re more into Twitter, Gregory Scofield (@gregoryscofield) and Lauren Crazybull (@LCrazybull) are both doing very important projects regarding #MMIW that you may want to follow.
Please don’t be upset this initiative is ending. There are many other ways you and I and we all can help bring attention to this extremely crucial issue and be allies. And if any indigenous-led advocacy groups could ever use some cartoon illustration for a project or two, I invite them to get in touch. I will happily volunteer my skills.
Thanks for understanding.
P.S. And if you totally want to unfollow me on Twitter, go for it. I understand most of you were there to follow the illustration initiative, and not to watch me live-tweet of The Equalizer.