First Indigenous painting to be displayed in Yukon courtroom unveiled

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Carcross/Tagish First Nation artist Violet Gatensby, who made the work of art, said she hopes the piece helps Indigenous people feel seen, heard and supported when entering the courtroom. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC - image credit)
Carcross/Tagish First Nation artist Violet Gatensby, who made the work of art, said she hopes the piece helps Indigenous people feel seen, heard and supported when entering the courtroom. (Sissi De Flaviis/CBC - image credit)

It's the first ever work of art displayed in a Yukon courtroom by an Indigenous artist.

Unveiled last Friday at the Whitehorse courthouse, Forget-Me-Not depicts a matriarchal society covered with forget-me-not flowers covering cracks that represents those who were lost during residential schools in Carcross, Yukon.

Carcross/Tagish First Nation artist Violet Gatensby, who did the work of art, said the flowers represent the roots "that we dig into our culture," she said.

"I made the flower abundant to show that out of all the hardships, we are growing back."

Gatensby said she hopes the piece helps Indigenous people to feel seen, heard and supported when entering the courtroom.

"People can find their own ways to connect with it. But I think the message is strong and I think it's worth showing," she said.

Painting will act as 'holistic bridge building'

Peter Johnston, the grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, said the unveiling sets a precedent for the territory and the country.

"I think it is a very powerful statement," he said.

He said the painting will act as a "holistic bridge building" to change the narrative on how the justice system deals with Indigenous people.

"We're still very much over-represented [in the system]. So, it's good for us to see ourselves in a different light in partnership but also to move forward in regards to what we are doing," he said.

Sissi De Flaviis/CBC
Sissi De Flaviis/CBC

Johnston also hopes the artwork serves as a piece of reflection for those who find themselves inside the court.

"It's a lonely place, we need comfort and a feeling of safety [and] support when we're in these situations. So, I hope that this will bring comfort, but also maybe that sense of responsibility, which is equally important in the justice system," he said.

'Forget-Me-Not' 

Friday's unveiling was touching for those in attendance, including Gatensby herself.

"It's a lot, I'm not sure how to process it just yet, but I'm very proud to be here," said Gatensby, who explained how she got the idea for the painting.

It came to her when she was working on her first canoe with her dad.

Sissi De Flaviis/CBC
Sissi De Flaviis/CBC

"We were steaming on the old residential school site in Carcross. My dad was giving a prayer and he was talking about the forget-me-not flowers and right there, it just clicked," she said.

The carved piece is a traditional Tlingit bentbox design. The faces around the painting represent the First Nation community while the cracks represent the cultural genocide, residential school and missing and murdered women and girls.

Reconciliation in the courtroom

This project is part of a larger plan to make the court and judicial system more culturally-inclusive for Yukon First Nations.

Michael Cozens is the chief judge of the Territorial Court of Yukon.

He told CBC News that members of the criminal justice system and the child protection system need to take steps to recognize and address the harm caused to the First Nations and Indigenous peoples of Canada by governmental policies such as the residential school system.

"This artwork is part of the steps that we believe are necessary to actually [recognize] harm and healing," said Cozens.

Cozens said he hopes this artwork, in collaboration with the Council of Yukon First Nations, allows people to feel that they have a voice in the courtroom.

"We recognize our obligation to work toward reconciliation and to bring restorative justice to the people that appear before us," he said.

The artwork is displayed in courtroom number five in the Laws Courts building on 2nd Avenue and members of the public will be able to see the piece in person in September after the renovations to the building's lobby are completed.

A smaller acrylic print will be displayed outside of the courtroom so people can see it and understand the meaning behind the painting before entering the room.

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