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Thunder Bay police, sexual assault survivors unite in 'Honouring Our Stories' art project

Honouring Our Stories, a collection of art and digital stories created by sexual assault survivors and Thunder Bay police officers, is on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until May 13.

'They'll be believed': Two-year collaborative project raises awareness, dispels stereotypes, builds trust

Kiaya Drake (left) and Thunder Bay police Sgt. Lori Wright share a smile while discussing their participation in Honouring Our Stories. The two-year collaborative art project brought together sexual assault survivors and police officers. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Honouring Our Stories, a collection of art and digital stories created by sexual assault survivors and Thunder Bay police officers, opened Thursday night at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

The two-year collaborative project encouraged the diverse group of people in the northwestern Ontario city to share their thoughts and feelings on how sexual violence has affected their lives.

"It was profoundly healing," Kiaya Drake, a sexual assault survivor who is studying social work at Lakehead University told CBC.

When a recent encounter with a perpetrator triggered "a breakdown", she turned to the women in the project for support.

"They were there for me, we did a smudge, everybody shared. It was really empowering, really uplifting and it really showed me that I'm not alone," said Drake.

"I realized I was so connected to all these different women with different stories and it was very comforting and it was unifying."

Honouring Our Stories, a collaborative art project involving sexual assault survivors and Thunder Bay police officers, saw participants create a variety of works from paintings to digital stories. (Jayal Chung/Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre)

The experience also helped Drake uncover a bias towards police she said she didn't even know she had.

"I was able to see behind the uniform, and see the hopes and the feelings and the attitudes towards survivors, and even the personal stories shared. It was eye-opening," she said.

For Sgt. Lori Wright, it was liberating to be seen by the other women as something more than just a police officer.

"Sometimes it's hard. People just see that uniform. And for me the uniform means strength, but I realized after that it doesn't mean that for everybody, and I'm glad they get to see the person underneath," she said.

"We are all people," continued Wright. "We all have struggles and challenges."



Being a part of the group, and hearing the stories is shaping the way Thunder Bay police Sgt. Lori Wright investigates allegations of sexual violence.

"Not only just listening to what has occurred but reassuring and making the individual realize that I do believe them, I am here and I'm going to fight for them," she said.

Wright said she hopes that the project sends the message that "police aren't the big bad guys, and we are actually here to help and we may not be perfect, but we are trying our best."

Drake echoes the desire for the exhibit to foster a sense of "community and unity" and hopes it will raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence in society.

As part of the Honouring Our Stories art project, participants shared the language they would like to use when discussing sexual violence. (Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre)

She also hopes it will help people shed their biases and "the things that hold us back from being able to be there" for survivors.

Looking at the art work, and listening to the stories of survivors should underline the need to believe those who come forward with allegations of abuse, said Wright.

"I'm hoping that we can eliminate victim shaming so if we can get people who know that they're not alone, and there won't be victim blaming, and that they'll be comfortable and know that they'll be believed, then maybe we can get more people reporting so we can stop these offenders from doing this again."

Honouring Our Stories was funded by the Ontario Arts Council and Ontario Women's Directorate Creative Engagement Fund to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. (Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre)

According to Statistics Canada, only 30 per cent of women assaulted by intimate partners and less than 10 per cent of those who were sexually assaulted reported these crimes to police, the Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre noted in a release about the project.

The release also stated that one in three women will experience some form of sexual assault in her lifetime, with Indigenous women are 3.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence than non-Indigenous women and that one in five women will be assaulted while attending a post-secondary institution.

Honouring Our Stories is on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until May 13.

The project was funded by the Ontario Arts Council and Ontario Women's Directorate Creative Engagement Fund to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment.

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