When is a mural not just a mural?
When it is part of a healing process.
If all goes according to plan, that process will produce a new work of art on the exterior of the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre building before the snow flies.
Last year, when the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre Society applied for a grant from the federal government’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Commemoration Fund, they did not want the mural to be a static project, they wanted it to be an inclusive and iterative collaboration.
Right from the beginning, in developing the proposal for the project dubbed “At the Heart,” the families of local Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing were involved.
Jacquie Bowes, a cousin of Jessica Patrick (Balczer) — who was found dead at Hudson Bay Lookout in September 2018, aged only 18 years and with a one-year-old daughter — outlined how important that was when the Smithers project was announced as one of the successful applicants at the end of June 2019.
“Families like ours, who have lost loved ones are grieving and will always be, the memories are so difficult, and the negative memories impact us here in the town of Smithers,” she said. “This mural honouring our loved ones will change this lens. With this mural, we can begin to heal and help make our hearts soft again.”
The project proposal tasked Sandra Harris, a Wet’suwet’en Indigenous Focusing Complex Trauma (IFOT) practitioner, with facilitating in-depth workshops to inform the design process.
Raven-Tacuara, a Northwest B.C. art collective comprising four Indigenous artists, was brought on board to handle the design and painting.
The key activities for At the Heart were initially scheduled to begin in April of this year and the vision was to make it inclusive of the broader community, but the COVID-19 pandemic both delayed and forced modifications to the plan.
The workshops, originally intended to bring all the stakeholders together en masse, finally got underway last week broken up into separate sessions for the three main families involved in the design process.
The first involved providing the families with background on murals and their importance in societies, creating “mind maps” to explore what they mean to the stakeholders and exploring colours and symbolism.
From there, they moved on to forming connections and collective agreement on the At the Heart mural, sharing everyone’s stories, looking for healing strategies and creating vision boards.
In Workshop 3, the families presented their vision boards to the artists and focussed on finding commonalities among the boards and strategizing about garnering wider community involvement in the context of the pandemic.
Brenda Wilson, whose 16-year-old sister Ramona Wilson was murdered in 1994 and her body found a year later near the Smithers airport, was very impressed with the process.
“I’m happy that the Friendship Centre has the project and the way that they’re doing things has been great, like involving the families, asking their opinions, so it’s been a great venture with everybody being involved rather than just the organization doing it on their own,” she said.
Annette Morgan, Dze L K’ant executive director, said the benefits of the project are far-reaching.
“The trauma-informed healing workshops with the families will culminate in a beautiful large scale piece of public art, focussed on honouring the memories of local women and girls who have gone missing or have been murdered in our communities, and as such will support our community on its healing journey,” she said.
The artists will now come up with ideas and sketches that will be brought back to the families at more yet-to-be-scheduled workshops.
“We have documented the experience to use as inspiration to create an inclusive mural design for all families involved, directly and distantly,” said Stephanie Anderson, one of the artists. “Our purpose is to create a design that represents the families’ stories and honour the memories of these missing and murdered women and girls.
“As a woman, a daughter of a matriarch, and member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, I feel very strongly about creating more awareness about this tragic MMIWG issue.”
Although the centre will not be able to host the large-scale community event they were planning for the unveiling, they said they are looking for virtual ways to engage the broader community and general public.
Physically, the old exterior of the building has been removed and it has been wrapped ready for new stucco to be applied.
Meanwhile, Smithers town council greenlighted the project at a special open meeting June 16. Staff recommended approval of a Form and Character Development Permit for modifications of the exterior of the Friendship Centre building on Main Street at Second Avenue with two conditions.
The first was that prior to painting, the Town would be provided with a design for the mural for “information and review.”
CAO Alan Harris explained that murals and artwork on buildings are generally exempt from the Sign Bylaw unless they contain political or commercial messages.
Coun. Lorne Benson expressed concern that the MMIWG issue is inherently political.
“If it’s messaging around a theme like that, I really have some apprehension about how that whole topic will be conveyed,” he said.
Coun. Greg Brown raised the issue that the meaning of ‘political’ in the bylaw is nebulous. While a political sign is defined as “a temporary sign intended to promote the activitíes or the cause of any polítical group or to encourage or discourage any person to vote in any manner at an election or public referendum, whether Federal, Provincial, or Municipal,” there is no definition for what would constitute a political message in a mural.
Harris suggested that is a flaw in the bylaw.
Coun. Casda Thomas expressed concern that even if the mural did not contain political messaging, the subject matter could be trauma-inducing for some members of the community.
Benson acknowledged that what would constitute political messaging is highly subjective, but reiterated his concern that council should have a say in the final design.
Following the lengthy discussion, Benson made a motion to change the wording at the end of the first condition to read “information, review and
approval.” The motion was defeated with Brown, Thomas and Deputy Mayor Gladys Atrill opposed. Councillors Frank Wray and John Buikema were not present.
In an emailed statement, Morgan said the project factored in these concerns right from the beginning.
“The Friendship Centre, is acutely aware of the sensitivities surrounding the subject matter,” she said. “Our project is designed to ensure that this mural is something that the families and community can look at with respect and pride.”
MMIWG COMMEMORATION FUND
Four other projects along the “Highway of Tears” in northwest B.C. were also approved.
In Prince George there are two. The Carrier Sekani Family Services Society is creating a commemorative marker to be placed at the beginning of the highway. The Prince George Red Dress Society also got a grant to put up a monument in the city.
In Terrace, the Indian Residential School Survivor’s Society is heading up a project to erect a healing totem pole. Carving of the pole is currently underway by a team led by artist Mike Dangeli and the installation is scheduled for September.
Prince Rupert is also in the mix with the Friendship House Association coordinating a number of initiatives including art workshops, a collaborative art exhibition and building a legacy statue of a woman.
Brenda Wilson said she supports all of the initiatives.
“I’m ecstatic that these projects are going to move forward with awareness that will be continuous, because we’ve talked about how we are going to have a continuous awareness to the public,” she said. “How do we do that? The monuments started to come up and we figured that would be the best way to bring the attention and awareness in regards to missing and murdered women.”
The MMIWG Commemoration Fund was one of the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Women and Gender Equality Canada is investing more than $10 million over into over 100 projects across the country.