Flower power: Artist plants pansies to mark homophobic attacks

Armed with his trowel and a bright magenta pansy, Paul Harfleet prepares to mark yet another site where a gay man or woman has been killed.

Warning: This story contains offensive language

Paul Harfleet takes a photo of a pansy he's planted near Major's Hill Park in Ottawa. The visual artist is planting the flowers to mark the locations of homophobic incidents. (Alan Neal/CBC)

Armed with his trowel and a bright magenta pansy, Paul Harfleet prepares to mark yet another site where a gay man or woman has been killed.

"This is where several people were pushed off this cliff, in this really horrendous trend known as 'roll a queer,'" says Harfleet, standing in Major's Hill Park, just across the Ottawa Locks from Parliament Hill.

"Several people died. It was really horrible."

This week, the London, England-based artist has been planting pansies around the capital as part of The Pansy Project. 

The Pansy Project has taken Harfleet around the world, accenting the local landscapes with flowers at the spots where queer people have been the victim of harassment, verbal abuse, assault, and murder.

'Started with my own experience'

"The pansy project started with my own experience in being shouted at in the street. And I didn't really experience physical violence, but you knew that that was at the root of it, somehow," Harfleet told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

That homophobic violence was disturbingly prevalent at Major's Hill Park in the late 1980s, when its shaded, relatively private pathways served perfectly as the one of the city's prime cruising locations.

According to local LGBT history website The Village Legacy Project, men were attacked and even killed in the park, some thrown from the cliffs into the water below.

At the time, police tended to treat the deaths as unrelated accidents. It wasn't until the 1989 killing of Château Laurier waiter Alain Brosseau — who was simply walking through the park after a shift when he was attacked by a gang of young men and tossed to his death — that things began to change.

"When I hear of someone being murdered, it's only a few steps along from my experience," says Harfleet.

"It does always kind of choke me [up] when I'm planting at the site of a murder."

'Barely touching the surface'

By Thursday, Harfleet had planted flowers at a handful sites across the city.

Many of those sites demarcate places where people told Harfleet over email or social media that they'd been verbally abused  — like at Gladstone and Bayswater avenues, when someone shouted "faggot!" at a cyclist from a passing car. 

"The reality of it is is that I'm barely touching the surface as [to] how much homophobia goes on and how complex it is. And I think for the LGBTQ+ community, most of us have experienced it in someway or another," he said.

"I think various statistics reflect that it's at least 80 or 90 per cent of [queer] people experience that sort of thing."

Harfleet also documents the pansies he plants with photos and videos, and he'll be showing some of the resulting images at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO).

That exhibition opens Friday.

"I'm an artist, primarily. That's the focus. The work is the art," Harfleet said. "And the sort of byproduct of that is I become an accidental activist."

Photos from U.K. artist Paul Harfleet's pansy planting will be on display as of this Friday at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO) in Little Italy. (Christine Maki/CBC)