'Honouring Our Stories': art helps police, survivors share impact of sexual violence

'Honouring Our Stories': art helps police, survivors share impact of sexual violence

A unique art project in Thunder Bay, Ont., is bringing together police officers and female survivors of sexual assault, and helping them express how violence has affected their lives.

Honouring our Stories uses everything from beading to weaving to digital storytelling to illustrate how sexual violence impacts the victims and investigators.

"Art is a great leveler. It's something that brings people to their own deepest place where they can tell their own personal stories and it's also a great way to share your story with someone else, " said Gwen O'Reilly, the director of the Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre in Thunder Bay.

Officers know 'women are scared to call them'

Eight male and female officers of various ranks, along with nine women of diverse backgrounds, who range in age from 20 to 60, are participating in the project.

Survivors share stories of the impact of trauma, such as addictions and mental health issues, as well as tales of resilience and recovery said Emmy Pantin, the lead artist and co-director of the Community Story Strategy.

Police spoke about why they chose that line of work and why they care about it, but they also "expressed how much it hurts them that they know that women are scared to call them," said Pantin, adding that the officers, like the survivors, are frustrated with the shortcomings of the justice system.

"They know that, in the end, a lot of women don't get justice and that they're only a piece of it, but they're the face of it," she continued.

"They do what they can but they need the court system — judges and lawyers — to do their piece, and they want to work with the community and to work with survivors to seek justice." 

The two groups had "more similarities than you might think," said O'Reilly.

Survivors, police both experience PTSD 

"Both women survivors and police officers experience PTSD," O'Reilly said.

"Police talk about being hyper-vigilant and that when they walk into a room, they're checking to make sure it's safe and I said 'oh, that's what we see with survivors.' They really expressed a sense of powerlessness," she said.

The first phase of the project saw the two groups working separately but along parallel paths, said Pantin.

In phase two, which is expected to begin in mid-April, police and survivors will come together to share the short videos they've created and then work as one group on a new digital story.

The hope is that all the art work created through Honouring our Stories can eventually be put on display for the public to see and discuss.

Honouring our Stories is being funded through the Ontario Arts Council and the Ontario Women's Directorate Creative Engagement Fund.