Trigger Warning: The following article speaks on the topic of sexual assault.
BATHURST, NEW BRUNSWICK -- Bathurst, New Brunswick, population 12,275, is yearly home to the 'Hospitality Days' festival in late July. The festival, sponsored by such New Brunswick notables as 'Acadie Nouvelles', 'Brunswick News' and 'Kenny's Trucking', is a week-long celebration “created to bring out the best of our community through manifestations and celebrations”, according to the festival's official website. The fireworks display at Hospitality Days is of such magnitude, apparently, that folks travels from as far away as “Caraquet and Miramichi to assist in its showing.”
With crowds estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000, it is truly one of northern New Brunswick's festival crown jewels.
So it was with some consternation that two paintings, both centrally situated in town and both prepared by local artists working with the Bathurst Art Society for the Hospitality Days festival, depicted Indigenous peoples in a manner that many folks have since taken offence to.
The first image depicts two Indigenous women in full length buckskin dresses, with their hands bound behind their backs and their ankles tied. It seems as though they are captives on a boat. Their mouths are gagged with something resembling duct tape. They facial expressions appear to be resigned to whatever fate awaits them. One has simply closed her eyes.
The second image shows a priestly-looking individual standing in front of three Indigenous people. In front of the crowd are two treasure chests filled with nondescript items. To the casual observer, it might pass for a sermonizing scene, for all intents and purposes rather paternalistic to boot.
No explanation – rational or otherwise – accompanied the two images in the storefront window in which they appeared.
For the duration of the festival, the images appeared in the Main street-facing window of the former Sportsmen Pub building, which, perhaps to make matters worse, is the site of the unsolved murders of Diane Aubie and Gary DeGrace.
Understandably, a social media backlash against the images ensued and the City of Bathurst began to receive on-line complaints. Patty Musgrave, host of the annual Sisters in Spirit vigil in the Moncton area, penned the following, scathing, letter to Bathurst City Council:
“My letter is to address the appalling disregard to First Nation people in this Province and across the country during this past week.
Two paintings commissioned by the committee and hung on Main St. have caught the eye of many.
I have quite a few issues to address with these art pieces.
1) The building that housed these art pieces was a building in which two human beings were murdered. One a woman. These murders were never solved and I must say that it is quite offensive that you would allow paintings to be hung in the windows of this building while still grieving families must see this as part of your "hospitality days".
2) The painting that made me the sickest was depicting two Mi'kmaq women, ankles and hands bound and mouths covered. Yes, I am aware of the sickening "legend" of the Phantom Ship and unlike most of New Brunswick, understand the history of this coastal area and the rapes and most likely murders of Mi'kmaq women that took place with each ship arriving in the bay. Murders. These women are now our Ancestors. They were degraded and used and abused and left for dead over the side of ships. Ripped from their families and for the most part, never to be seen again.
Were you aware that still happens today? Were you aware of the social media hashtag #MMIW? It stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Were you aware or do you even acknowledge that there are approximately 1800 missing and/or murdered women across this country as we speak? Were you aware that a National Inquiry is one of the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee? Do you know what the TRC is? Do you understand what it all means? Have you heard of Sisters in Spirit? Do you know that each October 4th NATIONALLY we hold vigils to honour our Missing and Murdered sisters...including those who died centuries ago. Because it is STILL happening Mayor, Council and Committee. Please feel free to see www.nwac.ca to educate yourselves.
What your painting did was a few things. Not only did it anger us, but as you may know, anger comes from pain. The pain that we all experience when yet another woman goes missing or is murdered. The pain of attempting to raise awareness every single day in every single conversation to educate people all over the country that this is a horrible and shocking epidemic happening in this country. Your painting was a trigger to many women who have already lost a loved one in this province...and there are quite a few. Did you know that?
The depiction of native women tied and held in bondage made bile rise to our throats. Shall I say more?
I'm not sure how you will ever be able to apologize for such a complete lack of common sense, any sort of consultation of FN people before allowing an artist to depict the lives of native women without truly understanding what that
"vision" would do and for not having any individuals oversee the hanging of this offensive garbage!
The next painting, equally as revolting, is of a Missionary or (I've been told) a Ship's Captain standing over some natives sitting at his feet like slaves. First off, whether or not it is a missionary or a captain, the bottom line is that someone has envisioned the native people as being inferior to those with whom they share the canvass. Quite another disturbing scene don't you agree? The lone white man dressed in black looming large over the Indians in buckskin....hanging off his every word. I can't say more...you would have to be truly daft to not get the picture here in your mind of how these paintings have made us feel.
3) The letter of apology from the committee after receiving complaints about the pictures of the women includes a link to the phantom ship legend. Ok. That's just great. So in apologizing someone decided to condescendingly include a link for us to review our own history? This gets worse at each turn. Perhaps that apology should have read..."we are sorry for our huge lack of common sense and any knowledge of how this would make our FN residents feel and also for not consulting anyone in our neighbouring First Nations to assist us in depicting the history in a factual and respectful way." Emphasis on the respectful.
I'm sure you will have more than just my letter to read. Hopefully you get through them all in time to come up with a suitable apology.
Your apology should really include assurances that:
1) You will be holding a Town Hall to publically apologize for this absolute 'faux pas' as well, inviting Pam Palmater and various Elders to peacefully educate you on the history of the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people of this Province.
2) Your announcement of the Sisters in Spirit Vigil that you will begin holding this Oct 4 to honour the missing and murdered women (like the ones you depicted on Main st.) and that you will be flying the Sisters in Spirit flag at City Hall during the month of October. And of course your commitment to inviting various Elders to assist you and to carry out this vigil with class and respect.
3)Your ongoing consultation with FN people in your neighboring communities when any sort of "community event" takes place as unfortunately there is no real understanding of First Nations culture and the impact of colonialism.
I trust this letter finds you all well and ready to tackle the matters at hand.
Initially, the 'Heritage Days' committee's response to the mounting criticism over the depictions in the paintings was to publicly provide a link to the legend of the 'Phantom Ship'. The legend outlines the story of how “sea marauders” would commonly pillage Indigenous villages on the New Brunswick coastline, ransacking them, stealing furs as well as kidnapping women to later “have their way” with them. The two bound and gagged Indigenous women in the painting, apparently, were two such victims, expecting to be raped and murdered – except that in the case of the 'Phantom Ship' they met up with a crew member of conscience who demanded that they be set free.
With the festival now over, Heritage Days president Ricky Hondas is on vacation and could not be reached for further comment.
Anne-Marie Gammon, municipal counsellor for the City of Bathurst, in an on-line response to Ms. Musgrave's complaint, noted that:
“The paintings you depict were not accepted or part of the City’s contribution to the Hospitality Days Celebration. The paintings were done by volunteers from the Bathurst Art Society.”
As for the Bathurst Art Society, Rita May Gates, president of the Society, notes that offending painting of the bound and gagged Indigenous women has since been removed from Main Street, and that there was no ill-intent meant.
In terms of the painting of the priestly-looking fellow speaking to the captive Indigenous audience, Gates notes that this is a misinterpretation; The man is not a priest, he is a captain of a ship engaging in trade.
“We got together and we decided to do the story of the Phantom Ship. On Friday, we learned that our paintings did offend some people, so we did revise it,” says Gates. “We took the two Native people out. And we're really sorry that there was any offence taken...It wasn't our intention to create a misunderstanding or even to negate the Indigenous people. We just didn't think at the time that the images would be painful and upsetting and of course we do respect their culture and stories very much.
This depiction does open thought and dialogue regarding the plight of Aboriginal women, the abuse and femicide they have suffered over the centuries. We just send prayers for hope and healing going out to First Nations' people. It was never our intention to hurt anyone.”
In terms of future depictions of Indigenous peoples, bound and gagged and forlornly awaiting rape and murder or otherwise, Gates notes that consultation with “any ethnic group” will be done before potentially putting their likenesses to canvas.
“In retrospect, if we were ever doing anything regarding the Acadians, or any kind of ethnic group, we will consult with them,” says Gates.