Artist creates 'wash your hands' posters in 21 Indigenous languages

Colleen Gray answered the UN's call for art to stop the spread of COVID-19 with posters that recommend washing your hands in 21 Indigenous languages.

UN contest will now feature public health messages for Indigenous communities

Colleen Gray, left, created the image on the right to tell people to wash their hands in the South Baffin dialect of Inuktitut. It's part of a collection of 21 posters with COVID-19 public health messages in Indigenous languages. (Submitted by Colleen Gray)

When Colleen Gray saw that the United Nations had put out a call for artists to join the fight against COVID-19, her first thought was how to get the message out to Canada's Indigenous communities.

The artist — who's part French, part Irish and part Mi'kmaq — decided to take two of her pieces and, using translations she found on an Indigenous Services Canada website, add the recommendation to "wash your hands" in 21 Indigenous languages.

But when she submitted them to the agency running the global contest, Talenthouse, hers were not included in the final cut.

When she followed up with an email highlighting the importance of including North American Indigenous languages, she received a reply describing a variety of language choices available on the site, including Turkish, Nigerian Pidgin and Hindi — but no Indigenous languages from North America.

Artist creates public health notices in Indigenous languages

3 years ago
Duration 0:42
Featured VideoArtist Colleen Gray created a series of posters with the phrase “wash your hands” in 21 Indigenous languages.

Gray found that upsetting, especially given the UN's commitment to Indigenous languages.

"Just the disconnect really frustrated me. I didn't understand what was going on there. So when in doubt, do it yourself," said Gray. She identifies as eastern Metis, which is its own distinct group.

Gray decided instead to post her pieces on her website for free download in April.

Months later, after CBC Ottawa reached out for comment to Talenthouse, the company got in touch with Gray to ask for translations of the messages, with a plan to include them in an upcoming North American collection.

Gray in her home studio near Carleton Place, Ont. (Joshua Soucie)

In the meantime, Gray had shared them with public health groups and others working in Indigenous communities across Canada, where she's received positive feedback.

There's a lot of elders that don't speak the English language fluently, so to see something in their own language would be comforting, just knowing that somebody cares enough to take the time to give you something in the language of your own upbringing.- Colleen Gray

"At Beaverhouse First Nation, they were very excited to see this and grateful to have the resources. I heard from a nurse in the Mohawk community and she said, 'This is brilliant,'" Gray said. 

Ottawa Public Health recently added Gray's translations to a resource page for First Nations, Inuit and Métis community members

One of the posters features a woman sitting under a tree and pointing, as if to say, 'Wash your hands.' The other is of a polar bear in a cave, which Gray paired with languages used for Northern communities. 

Gray used two of her pieces to spread the handwashing message in 21 Indigenous languages. (Art by Colleen Gray)

Though government websites have made some public health messages available in some of the more popular Indigenous languages, Gray said she was motivated to make sure none of the smaller communities is forgotten. Her collection covers a wider range of languages including Denesuline, Swampy Cree, Innu aimun and Lakota. 

Gray says she'll even take requests if there's a language that's not included.

"There's a lot of elders that don't speak the English language fluently, so to see something in their own language would be comforting, just knowing that somebody cares enough to take the time to give you something in the language of your own upbringing. It's very important," said Gray, who has connections to many of these communities through her non-profit, called Art for Aid, which delivers new and gently used art supplies to youth in remote Indigenous communities.

This isn't the first time Gray has created art intended to send a public message. Gray's work was posted on a billboard on Highway 174 in Orléans last summer as part of a national campaign to draw attention to MMIWG.

This version of the poster is in the Mi'kmaq language. (Colleen Gray)

Now, she's focused on adjusting the protocols at her non-profit for the COVID-19 era. When the pandemic first hit, she began twice-disinfecting the pencils and paintbrushes that had taken over the basement and garage of her home in Carleton Place, Ont., for fear of unintentionally sending the virus into a vulnerable remote community.

"90 per cent of my skin was pretty ragged by the end of that," said Gray, who believes the project is especially important during lockdown.

This one is in Nunatsiavummiutut, an Inuit dialect once spoken across northern Labrador. (Colleen Gray)

"Because now is a time when you want to channel things into art, and you also have time or space for that," she said.

Art for Aid is asking anyone who may have uncovered old art supplies during pandemic cleaning sprees to leave them outside in the sun before donating them. Gray has also launched an online store to raise funds to cover the high cost of sending art supplies to the North.

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