City workers accidentally destroyed artwork dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women

A City of Montreal employee mistakenly destroyed earlier this week an Indigenous totem meant to be part of the First Peoples' Festival, sparking anger on social media.

City of Montreal spokesperson said employee was told to remove wood totem by event organizers

La femme de la nuit hibou, a wood totem created by Atikamekw artist Jacques Newashish, was on public display at the Places des Festivals. (Courtesy of Mario Faubert)

A City of Montreal employee mistakenly destroyed earlier this week an Indigenous totem meant to be part of the First Peoples' Festival, sparking anger on social media.

The wooden artwork — La femme de la nuit hibou created by Atikamekw artist Jacques Newashish — was dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women.

It was on display at the Place des Festivals and was supposed to be symbolically burned during a ceremony on Wednesday.

But when event organizers with the Montreal First Peoples' Festival showed up Tuesday morning, Newashish's totem had disappeared following what was apparently a communications mixup between the city and organizers.

"The fate of this artwork is ironic given the message that the artist wanted to send, emphasizing the injustice experienced by missing Indigenous women and affected families," Newashish's partner, Clode Jalette, wrote on Facebook.

Anik de Repentigny, a spokesperson for the City of Montreal, told Radio-Canada the city was asked to clean up wood chips at Place des Festivals Monday evening. The totem was surrounded by wood chips and an organizer at the scene told the employee to remove the artwork as well, said Repentigny.

"The city employee acted in good faith and according to the information that was given to him at that moment," said de Repentigny.

Investigation underway

Jalette slammed what she calls "an apparent lack of communication" between the city and event organizers, adding that the blunder was "beyond sad" for both the artist and Atikamekw communities.

"How could they so easily tear up and destroy what was clearly a work of art that was practically finished?" said Jalette.

Others said that there should be consequences for the error.

"I hope that the employers in question will be sanctioned for this 'accidental' action," Anna Quesy wrote on Facebook.

Land Insights, the organization in charge of the festival, said an investigation is underway to figure out exactly what happened to the totem and will be following up with the city.

"We're in the process of investigating," said Henry Welsh, who is in charge of communications. "So we will try to find a solution and find out what happened in detail because right now we don't really know what happened."

Organizers from Land Insights also published Wednesday a letter on Facebook apologizing to Newashish. They called the situation "an unfortunate error" and acknowledged they "should have been more vigilant."

A different ceremony featuring the symbolic burning of another work of art by Newashish was held in Outremont on Wednesday.

With files from Radio-Canada