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What is the first permanent public art monument in Canada to honour survivors of sexual violence?

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Emerging out of a long-time vision of the Women's Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County (Ontario), Toronto-based Red Dress Productions were invited to lead the Countdown Public Art Project – a community-wide initiative that would create the first monument of its kind in Canada to recognize survivors of sexual violence. In turn, Red Dress Productions invited Ottawa Valley Creative Arts Open Studio – a non-profit organization that promotes creative arts into community life - to join the project to develop partnerships and outreach. Red Dress Productions designed the project and its development including workshop framework and facilitation, with artists from the Ottawa Valley Creative Arts Open Studio and sexual violence workers from the Women's Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County supporting the workshop process. Gatherings and meetings with municipalities and local partners began in April 2016 and creative development workshops with community members took place from July to September 2016 in Pembroke, Eganville, Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, and Killaloe to generate ideas for the design of a new pebble mosaic monument as well as robust discussion about sexual violence in their communities, the role of public monuments, and, the hoped ripples of the Countdown Public Art Project. Anna Camilleri and Tristan Whiston, artistic co-directors and lead artists of Red Dress Productions, stewarded the progression of the community members who contributed to the conceptual development and building of the project. With more than one hundred sketches produced and copious notes recorded, the community response had been nothing but supportive. Instead of erecting a single monument within Renfrew County, the community members chose to build an umbrella of four linked monuments to be erected in Pembroke, Eganville, Pikwàkanagàn First Nation, and Killaloe. The concept was to produce a large or 'anchor' monument in Eganville with its 'sister' monuments to be located on the three other sites. Members of the community were invited to help build the four mosaic public artworks that consisted of 29 components for the main monument and three others for the sister monuments. After sorting five tons of stone for the monuments, the components were built on tables one pebble at a time and after completion of the pouring and curing process, they were released from their molds. Within First Nations cultures stones are called 'grandfathers' and are living with spirits. Stones and rocks are wise and sacred because of everything they have seen and experienced. Rocks have spirits that guide and assist us. It is befitting that the first-ever monument in Canada dedicated to survivors of sexual violence is made of stone. While the Pembroke sister monument was unveiled on 14 October 2016, the remainder of the monuments were unveiled separately the following day. Project funding was provided by the Government of Ontario. Depicted in the photograph are details from the principal monument of the Countdown Public Art Project.

The feedback from key project organizers has been enthusiastic. For example, JoAnne Brooks, Director of the Women's Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County said: "To create a community-built monument that makes visible the vast reality of sexual violence, stone by stone is a lasting legacy to the truth – survivors are everywhere." Lead artist Anna Camilleri also said: "We enact the aesthetic power of collaborative public art to issue a public protest, a resounding declaration: Sexual violence is not a private shame – it is a social and political responsibility that belongs to all of us to eradicate." Lastly, Andy Trull, artistic director of Ottawa Valley Creative Arts Open Studio was quoted as saying that they are "honored to be a partner in the Countdown project, which has brought over 250 community members. By imagining and creating this monument together, our communities in the Ottawa Valley have joined a larger movement to begin the countdown to end sexual violence."

On this day, 15 October 2021, we commemorate the fifth anniversary of the unveiling of Canada's first permanent public art monument located in Renfrew County, Ontario, which honours survivors of sexual violence.

André M. Levesque

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