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Students honour missing women in multimedia project

Ryerson students collaborated with families of Indigenous women and the community to produce Shades of our Sisters exhibit
By: Emerald Bensadoun
February 14, 2017
Maggie Cywink

Photo: Maggie Cywink, sister of Sonya Cywink and one of the producers of Shades of our Sisters. Photo: Joshua Howe.

When Ryerson University students Tomas Maturana, Josephine Tse and Laura Heidenheim began working on their thesis project last year, they had no idea that it could ever grow to become such a defining moment in their lives.

The product of their team’s final thesis, Shades of Our Sisters is a collaboration between eight Ryerson media production students and three Indigenous partners that aims to honour the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Girls, Transgender and Two Spirit peoples. The project tells the stories of Sonya Cywink and Patricia Carpenter, two of Canada’s 1,200 missing and murdered women. The title Shades of our Sisters was conceived by their families, who have been an integral part of the team. In Indigenous culture when a person passes away, their essence and the memories of them are what’s left behind. These ‘shades’ of them, the parts of them that have remained with their families were the inspiration behind the project’s name.

The external,multimedia exhibit is a combination of film, soundscapes and personal artifacts. During the exhibition, audiences will move through spaces dedicated to the lives of each woman. The poems, childhood dolls and clothing they wore, curated by the production team will allow audiences to become better acquainted with Sonya and Patricia as they watch short documentaries of their lives.

“For us, I think it was the first time we realized that we’ve been given these tools and we can make a big difference,” said Maturana, the project’s artistic director. “We can really use these tools to affect society and to create greater change and we’re doing it by using what we learned from that course.”

Fed up with the way that murdered and missing Indigenous women were being portrayed in the media, the team coined the MMIW Families First Approach, where families of the missing and murdered would take active roles in every level of production, with the Ryerson media production team following their lead in telling the families’ stories through their own lens.

“We found our focus in celebrating the lives and the memories of these women instead of just dealing with the issue as a whole,” said Maturana. “Kind of focusing on each specific issue and remembering them and honoring them for who they were as people, instead of a statistic or as part of a political campaign.”

Executive producer Heidenheim said her frustration lay in the way reporters victimized surviving loved ones in the media. “The media will focus on what their blood-alcohol content was, when they were found killed, whether or not they were a sex-worker, whether or not they were living on the street, those are the details that are given,” said Heidenheim. “This is coming from the families. This is their story and that’s the way it should be.”

In addition to the exhibition, the project incorporates other transmedia elements, titled Feathers for our Women. Students across Canada were asked to write about the special women in their lives, compassion and violence-prevention on paper feathers. The Canada-wide outreach aimed to educate and engage youths, to create a conversation about MMIW inside of classrooms and schools.

The project has surpassed all of her expectations, says Tse. “Our initial goal was to send out over 1,200 because that’s the number right now – there’s over 1,200 missing or murdered Indigenous women – so we wanted to give back over 1,200 feathers. We have gotten back way more than we thought, over 1,500. They keep coming in!”

Moving forward
For Maturana, the project reflects a much bigger problem in society. “If anything, we hope that in raising this awareness and making this connection with people who didn’t really feel that connection before will inspire them to challenge the Canadian government,” said Maturana. “It’s everyone’s issue – it’s about keeping women safe and raising youth to consider these issues on the forefront.”

Both Tse and Maturana agree that the most rewarding part of their experience was getting to see how much their project impacted the families’ healing process.

“In taking these steps they’re able to somewhat shed the purely negative perspectives and memories that they were left with in this situation and they’re able to bring back all of the beautiful memories,” said Maturana. “They’re able to remember all of the beautiful things that were, maybe, forgotten through the tragedy.”

Heidenheim is grateful for the opportunity to be involved in social change.  “No matter how much work we’ve put in, no matter how tired we are, it pales in comparison to how exhausting it must be for the families to speak about somebody they’ve lost,” said Heidenheim. “We’re very aware that every time we ask them to speak they’re opening up wounds, something that’s so hard. We’re inspired by the fact that they are just so strong and just so willing to speak.”

“Working with them,” said Heidenheim, “has been, I think for everyone on the team, the most special experience of our young lives.”

The Shades of our Sisters exhibition will open to the public from February 17 to February 19 in the Tecumseh Auditorium at Ryerson University, later travelling to Alderville Community Centre in Alderville, Ont., from February 21 to 22, and then to Espanola High School in Espanola, Ont., from February 24 to 25, the hometowns of the Cywinks and the Carpenters.

For more information, please visit the external,Shades of our Sisters website.