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Survivors monument unveiled

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

EGANVILLE - A monument inspired by the courage of the survivors of sexual violence has been unveiled.

On Saturday afternoon, nearly 200 people assembled in Eganville’s Centennial Park to take part in the ceremonies commemorating the massive stone pebble mosaic, which took 250 volunteers much of the summer to assemble a pebble at a time.

This was one of four linked monuments commemorated, which are the first of its kind in Canada. The three sister mosaics are located in Killaloe, Pikwakanagan and by the office of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, located in Pembroke.

All are impressive, but the one in Eganville, the geographic centre of Renfrew County, is the largest: made up of five tons of stones, carefully arranged into the shape of what resembles a flower, it represents both a commemoration of the survivors of sexual violence, and a public declaration people will no longer remain silent about it and the damage it does to themselves and the communities around them.

JoAnne Brooks, the director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, said this is truly an epic day, and she is so pleased so many came out to attend the ceremony.

“Today we are unveiling a monument, the first ever monument to the victims of sexual violence, when so much of it is invisible,” she said, reflecting on some of the resistance they faced when founding the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre in 1993, because that was perceived to be a big city problem and not something that happened in small rural communities like those scattered across Renfrew County.

This monument, Brooks said, is a visible testament to the truth, which has remained hidden for far too long.

“The truth of the matter is we all know someone who survived sexual violence or are ourselves a survivor of sexual violence,” she said, ‘We are here because we believe survivors.”

Brooks said each stone within it honours a survivor’s story. The ashes of those who did not survive have also been made part of the mosaic so their stories would not be forgotten.

She said this monument is needed so badly because of the social stigma of sexual violence which exists in small rural communities, that it isn’t anyone’s business but one’s own, and one should keep quiet about it.

Brooks said since everyone is connected to everyone else in one way or another, this code of silence is hard to break. The isolation of women living in the rural parts of the county and the lack of public transportation makes it hard for victims to access the resources they need, so often people prefer to keep quiet about it.

Brooks said the monument helps spark conversations about such things, which need to be spoken of openly if sexual violence is to become a thing of the past.

Tracy MacCharles, Ontario minister responsible for women’s issues, was present at the event, as were representatives from Bonnechere Township council, workers with sexual assault centres from across Ontario and Renfrew County, members of the arts community, activists, the community at large and others, who all gathered inside and around the park’s gazebo.

MacCharles said the Ontario government’s strategy of dealing with both sexual violence and harassment includes using art as a means to reach people, and stated this mosaic does just that in an impactful way.

“In just seven short months you were able to do this,” she said, “and create this first permanent monument to recognize the survivors of sexual violence. Let it stand proudly as a testament to the resilience of survivors.”

Bonnechere Valley councillors Jackie Agnew and Meredith Jamieson both said they are proud their community was selected to host the monument. Both said they have been touched by sexual violence because someone close to them became victims.

Agnew said when Mayor Jennifer Murphy brought the idea to council, after being contacted by Brooks about it, there was unanimous consent.

Jamieson said they all felt proud that day to approve it, as it is rare a council member can participate in something which has a permanent impact, and become part of a legacy.

“This is something our community should be so proud of,” she said.

The Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County spearheaded The Countdown Public Art Project in 2014. In March 2016, it became a reality thanks to a $75,000 grant from the Ontario Arts Council. With their collaborating partner the Ottawa Valley Creative Arts Open Studio anchoring outreach and partnership development, workshops were held July and August in Pembroke, Eganville., Pikwakanagan and Killaloe to determine the shape, scope, themes and motif of the monument, and the impact they hoped it would generate.

The mosaics were built by volunteers under the artistic guidance and leadership of Anna Camilleri from Toronto-based Red Dress Productions. Brooks said this wouldn’t have happened if not for these artists and volunteers.

“It has been a great honour to be able to do this,” she said, along with Tristan R. Whiston, the other artistic director of the project. Camilleri said they would be returning to add permanent plaques as part of the stone artwork.

Loree Lawrence, representing the Ontario Arts Council, said it really has been a privilege to be able to fund a work which has such an obvious impact on the community. She said Red Dress Productions has a history with the arts council of doing much projects, and she is confident even more provocative artworks like these will be done elsewhere in the province.

Julie Lalonde, sexual violence activist and the manager of the Draw-the Line Campaign, said this monument is a particular triumph for women, especially those in small towns and rural areas who have been overlooked in the larger discussions about dealing with sexual violence and the services to help them. Any conversations about sexual violence never includes rural women and the unique challenges they face. She said the perception in the bigger urban centres is rural people are backwards, bigoted and not progressive at all, almost not worth thinking about.

“I know that’s not true,” Lalonde said, who spent two years researching the effects of sexual violence on rural women in Renfrew County. “And you now have a monument to stick it to them.”

For years, rural women who have become the victims of sexual violence have remained silent, neither seeking hospital treatment or police involvement, and instead talking it over quietly among their trusted peers. Lalonde said it is time to get loud about it, as that is the only way things will change.

“That monument is telling everyone we won’t be silent any more,” she said, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation may be for people or the community.

“This community is only going to solve this together,” Lalonde said. “We don’t need cops, lawyers and politicians to solve this problem for us, because it hasn’t worked yet.”

“Who do we have to rely on but each other?” she said.

SUhler@postmedia.com